I was pensively penning the outline of the inkstand's circular, quivering shadow. In a distant room a clock struck the hour, while I, dreamer that I am, imagined someone was knocking at the door, softly at first, then louder and louder. He knocked twelve times and paused expectantly.
"Yes, I'm here, come in..."
The door knob creaked timidly, the flame of the runny candle tilted, and he hopped sidewise out of a rectangle of shadow, hunched, gray, powdered with the pollen of the frosty, starry night.
I knew his face - oh, how long I had known it!
His right eye was still in the shadows, the left peered at me timorously, elongated, smoky-green. The pupil glowed like a point of rust....That mossy-gray tuft on his temple, the pale-silver, scarcely noticeable eyebrow, the comical wrinkle near his whiskerless mouth - how all this teased and vaguely vexed my memory!
I got up. He stepped forward.
His shabby little coat seemed to be buttoned wrong - on the female side. In his hand he held a cap - no, a dark-colored, poorly tied bundle, and there was no sign of any cap....
Yes, of course I knew him - perhaps had even been fond of him, only I simple could not place the where and the when of our meetings. And we must have met often, otherwise I would not have had such a firm recollection of those cranberry lips, those pointy ears, that amusing Adam's apple....
With a welcoming murmur I shook his light, cold hand, and touche the back of a shabby arm chair. He perched like a crow on a tree stump, and began speaking hurriedly.
"It's so scary in the streets. So I dropped in. Dropped in to visit you. Do you recognize me? You and I, we used to romp together and halloo at each for days at a time. Back in the old country. Don't tell me you've forgotten?"
His voice literally blinded me. I felt dazzled and dizzy - I remembered the happiness, the echoing, endless, irreplaceable happiness....
No, it can't be: I'm alone....it's only some capricious delirium. Yet there really was somebody sitting next to me, bony and implausible, with long-earred German bootees, and his voice tintinnabulated, rustled - golden, luscious-green familiar - while the words were so simple, so human....
"There - you remember. Yes, I am a former Forest Elf, a mischievous sprite. And here I am, forced to flee like everyone else."
He heaved a deep sigh, and once again I had visions of billowing nimbus, lofty leafy undulations, bright flashes of birch bark like splashes of sea foam, against a dulcet, perpetual, hum....He bent toward me and glanced gently into my eyes. "Remember our forest, fir so black, birch all white? They've cut it all down. The grief was unbearable - I saw my dear birches crackling and falling, and how could I help? Into the marshes they drove me, I wept and I howled, I boomed like a bittern, then left lickety-split for a neighboring pinewood.
"There I pined, and could not stop sobbing. I had barely grown used to it, and lo, there was no more pinewood, just blue-tinted cinders. Had to do some more tramping. Found myself a wood - a wonderful wood it was, thick, dark, and cool. Yet somehow it was just not the same thing. In the old days I'd frolic from dawn until dusk, whistle furiously, clap my hands, frighten passersby. You remember yourself - you lost your way once in a dark nook of my woods, you in some little white dress, and I kept tying the paths up in knots, spinning the tree trunks, twinkling through the foliage. Spent the whole night playing tricks. But I was only fooling around, it was all in jest, vilify me as they might. But now I sobered up, for my new abode was not a merry one. Day and night strange things crackled around me. At first I thought a fellow elf was lurking there; I called, then listened. Something crackled, something rumbled....but no, those were not the kinds of sounds we make. Once, toward evening, I skipped out into a glade, and what do I see? People lying around, some on their backs, some on their bellies. Well, I think, I'll wake them up, I'll get them moving! And I went to work shaking boughs, bombarding with cones, rustling, hooting....I toiled away for a whole hour, all to no avail. Then I took a closer look, and I was horror-struck. Here's a man with his head hanging by one flimsy crimson thread, there's one with a heap of thick worms for a stomach....I could not endure it. I let out a howl, jumped in the air, and off I ran....
"Long I wandered through different forests, but I could find no peace. Either it was stillness, desolation, mortal boredom, or such horror it's better not to think about it. At last I made up my mind and changed into a bumpkin, a tramp with a knapsack, and left for good: Rus', adieu! Here a kindred spirit, a Water-Sprite, gave me a hand. Poor fellow as on the run too. He kept marveling, kept saying - what times are upon us, a real calamity! And even if, in olden times, he had had his fun, used to lure people down (a hospitable one, he was!), in recompense, how he petted and pampered them on the gold river bottom, with what songs he bewitched them! These days, he says, only dead men come floating by, floating in batches, enormous numbers of them, and the river's moisture is like blood, thick, warm, sticky, and there's nothing for him to breathe....and so he took me with them.
"He went off to knock about some distance sea, and put me ashore on a foggy coast - go, brother, find yourself some friendly foliage. But I found nothing, and I ended up here in this foreign, terrifying city of stone. Thus I turned into a human, complete with proper starched collars and bootees, and I've even learned human talk...."
He fell silent. His eyes glistened like wet leaves, his arms were crossed, and, by the wavering light of the drowning candle, some pale strands combed to the left shimmered so strangely.
"I know you two are pining," his voiced shimmered again, "but you're pining, compared to mine, my tempestuous, turbulent pining, is but the even breathing of one who is asleep and think about it: not one of our Tribe is there left in the Rus'. Some of us swirled away like wisps of fog. Others scattered over the world. Our native rivers are melancholy, there is no frisky hand to splash up the moon-gleams. Silent are the orphaned bluebells that remain. By chance, unmown, the pale-blue gusli that once served my rival, the ethereal Field-Sprite, for his songs. A shaggy, friendly, household spirit, in tears, has forsaken your besmirched, humiliated home, and the groves that withered, the pathetically luminous, magically somber groves....
"It was we, Rus', who were your inspiration, your unfathomable beauty, your age long enchantment! And we are all gone, gone, driven into exile by a crazed surveyor.
"My friend, soon I shall die, say something to me, tell me that you love me, a homeless phantom, come sit closer, give me your hand...."
The candle sputtered and went out. Cold fingers touched my palm. The familiar melancholy laugh pealed and fell still.
When I turned on the light there was no one in the armchair....no one!....nothing was left but a wondrously subtle scent in the room, of birch, of humid moss....
translated by Dimitri Nabokov
A beautiful early tale by the author to be read aloud (as I did this morning on a drive with Sweetheart) and translated by Nabokov's son Dimitri. Written when the author was barely in his twenties — his first story ever published — then signed with his pseudonym "Vladimir Sirin" (sirin is a hawk owl). Nabokov became a published author while a student at Trinity College, Cambridge. He had moved with his family to England in 1919, abandoning Russia forever, and by 1922 they were in Berlin where his father was assassinated.