Authors: Uladzimir Karatkevich
King Stakh’s Wild Hunt
By Uladzimir Karatkevich
First published in Belarusian
as “Дзікае паляванне караля Стаха”
in “Вока тайфуна. Апавяданні і аповесці”.
Mіnsk, “Mastatskaya Litaratura”, 1974 г.
Translated by Mary Mintz
Edited by Camilla Stein
© Alena Sinkevich, 1974
© 2012, Glagoslav Publications, United Kingdom
Glagoslav Publications Ltd
88-90 Hatton Garden
EC1N 8PN London
ISBN: 978-1-909156-12-8 (Epub)
ISBN: 978-94-91425-56-1 (Epub, The Netherlands)
ISBN: 978-1-909156-29-6 (Kindle)
This book is in copyright. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior permission in writing of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published without a similar condition, including this condition, being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
I am an old man, a very old man. No book can give you any idea of what I, Andrey Belaretsky, now a man of ninety six years, have seen with my own eyes. People say that fate usually grants long life to fools so that they should have time enough in which to acquire rich experience, experience that will make up for their lack of wisdom. Well then, I wish I were twice as foolish and might have lived twice as long, for I am an inquisitive fellow. How much that is interesting will occur in this world in the coming ninety six years!
If someone should tell me that tomorrow I shall die, so what of it? To rest is not a bad thing. Some day people will be able to live much longer than I have lived, and they will not know any bitterness in their lives. In mine I have experienced everything – life has not always been a bed of roses – what then is there to regret? I can lie down and fall asleep, sleeping calmly and even with a smile.
I am alone. As Shelley puts it:
When the lute is broken,
Sweet tones are remember’d not:
When the lips have spoken,
Loved accents are soon forgot.
She was a good person and we lived together, as told in a fairy tale, happily ever after till death did us part. However, enough! I have overtaxed your heart with sorrowful words. Having already said that my old age is a happy one, I better now tell you of those remote days of my youth. Here it is demanded of me that my story brings to an end my reminiscences of the Yanovskys and their decline, and the extinction of the Belarusian gentry. Evidently, I have to do it, for indeed what kind of a story would it be without an ending?
Besides, the story closely concerns me, and there’s no one else left but myself to tell it. You will find it interesting to listen to this amazing story to its very end, only to say that it greatly resembles fiction.
So then, before we begin, I must say that all this is the truth and nothing but the truth, although you will have only my word for it.
I was travelling in a hired carriage from the provincial city M. to the most remote corner of the province, and my expedition was coming to an end. Some two more weeks remained of sleeping in barns or under the stars in the carriage itself, of drinking water from clay pots, water that made one’s teeth and forehead ache, of listening to the long, drawn out singing of the old women sitting in the yards in front of their houses, singing of the woe of the Belarusians. And of woe there used to be plenty in those days – the cursed eighties were coming to an end.
However, you must not think that the only thing we did at that time was to wail and ask of the muzhyk “Where are you running to, muzhyk?” or “Will you awaken in the morning, strong and hearty?” The real compassion for the people came later. It is well known that a man is very honest until the age of twenty five. He cannot in his heart of hearts bear injustice when young. However, young people are too preoccupied with themselves. Everything is new to them. They find it interesting to watch the development of new feelings that settle in their souls, and they are certain that no one has ever previously experienced anything equal to their emotions.
It is only later that the sleepless nights will come, when bending over a scrap of newspaper you’ll read a notice in the same print as all the other news, that three were taken to the scaffold today – three, you understand, alive and merry fellows! It is only then that the desire will come to sacrifice yourself.
At that time, though considered a “Red”, I was convinced in the depths of my soul that the forests which grow on Earth are not only forests of scaffolds which was, of course, true even during the times of Yazafat Kuntsevich and the Belarusian “slander” inquisition, and that it was not only moaning which we heard in the singing. For me at that time it was much more important to understand who I was and which gods I should pray to. My surname, people said, was of a Polish origin, though even today I do not know what is so Polish about it. In our high school – and this was at the time when the dreadful memory of the trustee, Kornilov, who was Muravyov’s associate, had not yet been forgotten – our ethnicity was determined, depending on the language of our forefathers, “the eldest branch of the Russian tribe, pure blooded, truly Russian people!” That’s right, even more Russian than the Russians themselves!
Had they preached this theory to us before the beginning of the century, then Belarus would inevitably have overpowered Germany, while the Belarusians would have become the greatest oppressors on Earth, going on to conquer vital Russian territories of the not so Russian Russians, especially if the good gods had given us of the horn of plenty.
I sought my people and began to understand, as did many others at the time, that my people was here, at my side, but that for two centuries the ability to comprehend this fact had been beaten out of the minds of our intelligentsia. That is why I chose an unusual profession for myself – I was going to study and embrace this people.
And so, I graduated from the gymnasium and the university and became an ethnographer. This kind of work was only in its beginning at the time and the reigning powers considered the occupation dangerous for the existing order.
Contrary to the expectation, I met with eager helpfulness and attention wherever I went, and only this circumstance made my work easier for me. Many people offered their assistance. A clerk of our small district being a man of modest education, who later on mailed me and Romanov our notes on tales; or that village teacher who worried over his loaf of bread. My people lived even in the persona of one governor, an exceptionally benign man, a rarity and perhaps even a gem among his kind. He gave me a letter of recommendation in which he ordered under threat of severe punishment that I should be given every aid I needed.
My thanks to you, my Belarusian people! Even now I offer prayers for you. What then can be said about those years?
Gradually I arrived to the understanding of who I was.
What was it that instigated the process?
Perhaps it was in the lights of the villages so dear and their names which even to this very day fill my heart with a sort of longing and pain. Linden Land, Forty Tatars, Broken Horn, Oakland, Squirrels, Clouds, Birch Land Freedom...
Could it have been the nights in the meadow when children told you stories and drowsiness was crawling up under your sheepskin coat together with the cold? Or was it the heady smell of fresh hay and the stars shining through the barn’s torn roof? Perhaps none of these, but simply a teapot filled with pine needles and smoky black huts where women in their warm, long skirts, made of homespun fabric, sung their song. An endless song, more like a groan.
All of this was mine, my own. Over a period of two years I had travelled – on foot or in a carriage – across the Miensk, Mahilow, Vitsebsk provinces and part of the Vilnia province. And everywhere I saw blind beggars and dirty children, saw the woe of my people whom I loved more than anything else in the world – this I know now.
This region was an ethnographic paradise then, although the tale, especially the legend, as the most unstable product of a people’s fantasy, began to retreat farther and farther into the backwoods, into the most remote, forsaken corners.
There, too, I went. My legs were young, and young was my thirst for knowledge. And oh the things that I saw!
I saw the ceremony, an extraordinarily important one, called in Belarusian “zalom”, that is, if an enemy wished to bewitch somebody’s field, he had to tie together a bunch of wheatears into a knot.
I saw the stinging nettle yuletide, the game ‘pangolin’ otherwise known as ‘lizard’, rare even for those days. Yet more often I would see the last potato in a bowl of soup, bread as black as the soil and the tear stained sky wide eyes of the women, and I would hear a sleepy “a-a-a” over a cradle.
This was the Byzantine Belarus!
This was the land of hunters and nomads, black tar sprayers and quiet and pleasant chimes coming across the quagmires from the distant churches, the land of lyric poets and of darkness.
It was just at this time that the long and painful decline of our gentry was coming to an end. This death, this being buried alive, continued over a long period, a period of almost two centuries.
In the 18th century the gentry died out stormily in duels, in the straw, having squandered millions. At the beginning of the 19th century their dying out bore a quiet sadness for their neglected castles that stood in pine groves. There was already nothing poetic or sorrowful about it in my days; it was rather loathsome, at times horrifying even in its nakedness.
It was the death of the sluggards who had hidden themselves in their burrows, the death of the beggars, whose forefathers had been mentioned as the most distinguished nobles in the Horodlo privilege; they lived in old, dilapidated castles, went about dressed mostly in homespun clothing, but their arrogance was boundless.
It was a savage race, hopeless, abominable, leading at times to bloody crimes, the reasons for which one could have sought only in their eyes set either too closely or too far apart, eyes of vicious fanatics and degenerates.
Their stoves faced with Dutch tile they heated with splintered fragments of priceless Belarusian 17th century furniture; they sat like spiders in their cold rooms, staring into the endless darkness through windows covered with small fleets of drops that floated obliquely.
Such were the times when I was preparing for an expedition that would take me to the remote provincial District N. I had chosen a bad time for the endeavour. Summer, of course, is the most favourable time for the ethnographer; it is warm and all around there are attractive landscapes. However, our work gets the best results in the late autumn or in winter. This is the time for games and songs, for gatherings of women spinners with their endless stories, and somewhat later – the peasant weddings. This period is a golden time for us.
However, I had managed to arrive only at the beginning of August, which was not the time for storytelling, but for hard work in the fields. Only drawn out harvesting hymns were being hummed in the open air. All August I travelled about, and September, and part of October, and only just managed to catch the dead of autumn – the time when I might find something worthwhile. In the province errands were awaiting me that could not be put off.
My catch was nothing to boast of, and therefore I was as angry as the priest who came to a funeral and suddenly saw the corpse rise from the dead. I never had a real chance to examine a particular feeling that tormented me, a feeling that in those days stirred in the soul of every Belarusian. It was his lack of belief in the value of his cause, his inability to do anything, his deep pain – the main signs of those evil years, signs that arose, according to the words of a Polish poet, as a result of the persisting fear that someone in a blue uniform would come up to you, and say with a sweet smile: “To the gendarmerie, please!”
I had very few ancient legends, although it was for them that I was on the hunt. You probably know that all legends can be divided into two groups. The first are those that are alive everywhere amidst the greater part of the people. In the Belarusian folklore they are legends about a snake queen, about an amber palace, and also a great number of religious legends.
The second type are those which are rooted, as if chained, in a certain locality, district, or even in a village. They are connected to an unusual rock or cliff at the bank of a lake, with the name of a tree or a grove or with a particular cave nearby. It goes without saying that such legends, being linked to a minority, die out more quickly, although they are sometimes more poetic than the well known ones, and when published they are very popular.