My First Goose by Isaac Babel

Savitsky, Commander of the VI Division, rose when he saw me, and I wondered at the beauty of his giant’s body. He rose, the purple of his riding breeches and the crimson of his little tilted cap and the decorations stuck on his chest cleaving the hut as a standard cleaves the sky. A smell of scent and the sickly sweet freshness of soap emanated from him. His long legs were like girls sheathed to the neck in shining riding boots.

He smiled at me, struck his riding whip on the table, and drew toward him an order that the Chief of Staff had just finished dictating. It was an order for Ivan Chesnokov to advance on Chugunov-Dobryvodka with the regiment entrusted to him, to make contact with the enemy and destroy the same.

“For which destruction,” the Commander began to write, smearing the whole sheet, “I make this same Chesnokov entirely responsible, up to and including the supreme penalty, and will if necessary strike him down on the spot; which you, Chesnokov, who have been working with me at the front for some months now, cannot doubt.”

The Commander signed the order with a flourish, tossed it to his orderlies and turned upon me gray eyes that danced with merriment.

I handed him a paper with my appointment to the Staff of the Division.

“Put it down in the Order of the Day,” said the Commander. “Put him down for every satisfaction save the front one. Can you read and write?”

“Yes, I can read and write,” I replied, envying the flower and iron of that youthfulness. “I graduated in law from St. Petersburg University.”

“Oh, are you one of those grinds?” he laughed. “Specs on your nose, too! What a nasty little object! They’ve sent you along without making any enquiries; and this is a hot place for specs. Think you’ll get on with us?”

“I’ll get on all right,” I answered, and went off to the village with the quartermaster to find a billet for the night.

The quartermaster carried my trunk on his shoulder. Before us stretched the village street. The dying sun, round and yellow as a pumpkin, was giving up its roseate ghost to the skies.

We went up to a hut painted over with garlands. The quartermaster stopped, and said suddenly, with a guilty smile:

“Nuisance with specs. Can’t do anything to stop it, either. Not a life for the brainy type here. But you go and mess up a lady, and a good lady too, and you’ll have the boys patting you on the back.”

He hesitated, my little trunk on his shoulder; then he came quite close to me, only to dart away again despairingly and run to the nearest yard. Cossacks were sitting there, shaving one another.

“Here, you soldiers,” said the quartermaster, setting my little trunk down on the ground. “Comrade Savitsky’s orders are that you’re to take this chap in your billets, so no nonsense about it, because the chap’s been through a lot in the learning line.”

The quartermaster, purple in the face, left us without looking back. I raised my hand to my cap and saluted the Cossacks. A lad with long straight flaxen hair and the handsome face of the Ryazan Cossacks went over to my little trunk and tossed it out at the gate. Then he turned his back on me and with remarkable skill emitted a series of shameful noises.

“To your guns—number double-zero!” an older Cossack shouted at him, and burst out laughing. “Running fire!”

His guileless art exhausted, the lad made off. Then, crawling over the ground, I began to gather together the manuscripts and tattered garments that had fallen out of the trunk. I gathered them up and carried them to the other end of the yard. Near the hut, on a brick stove, stood a cauldron in which pork was cooking. The steam that rose from it was like the far-off smoke of home in the village, and it mingled hunger with desperate loneliness in my head. Then I covered my little broken trunk with hay, turning it into a pillow, and lay down on the ground to read in Pravda Lenin’s speech at the Second Congress of the Comintern. The sun fell upon me from behind the toothed hillocks, the Cossacks trod on my feet, the lad made fun of me untiringly, the beloved lines came toward me along a thorny path and could not reach me. Then I put aside the paper and went out to the landlady, who was spinning on the porch.

“Landlady,” I said, “I’ve got to eat.”

The old woman raised to me the diffused whites of her purblind eyes and lowered them again.

“Comrade,” she said, after a pause, “what with all this going on, I want to go and hang myself.”

“Christ!” I muttered, and pushed the old woman in the chest with my fist. “You don’t suppose I’m going to go into explanations with you, do you?”

And turning around I saw somebody’s sword lying within reach. A severe-looking goose was waddling about the yard, inoffensively preening its feathers. I overtook it and pressed it to the ground. Its head cracked beneath my boot, cracked and emptied itself. The white neck lay stretched out in the dung, the wings twitched.

“Christ!” I said, digging into the goose with my sword. “Go and cook it for me, landlady.”

Her blind eyes and glasses glistening, the old woman picked up the slaughtered bird, wrapped it in her apron, and started to bear it off toward the kitchen.

“Comrade,” she said to me, after a while, “I want to go and hang myself.” And she closed the door behind her.

The Cossacks in the yard were already sitting around their cauldron. They sat motionless, stiff as heathen priests at a sacrifice, and had not looked at the goose.

“The lad’s all right,” one of them said, winking and scooping up the cabbage soup with his spoon.

The Cossacks commenced their supper with all the elegance and restraint of peasants who respect one another. And I wiped the sword with sand, went out at the gate, and came in again, depressed. Already the moon hung above the yard like a cheap earring.

“Hey, you,” suddenly said Surovkov, an older Cossack. “Sit down and feed with us till your goose is done.”

He produced a spare spoon from his boot and handed it to me. We supped up the cabbage soup they had made, and ate the pork.

“What’s in the newspaper?” asked the flaxen-haired lad, making room for me.

“Lenin writes in the paper,” I said, pulling out Pravda. “Lenin writes that there’s a shortage of everything.”

And loudly, like a triumphant man hard of hearing, I read Lenin’s speech out to the Cossacks.

Evening wrapped about me the quickening moisture of its twilight sheets; evening laid a mother’s hand upon my burning forehead. I read on and rejoiced, spying out exultingly the secret curve of Lenin’s straight line.

“Truth tickles everyone’s nostrils,” said Surovkov, when I had come to the end. “The question is, how’s it to be pulled from the heap. But he goes and strikes at it straight off like a hen pecking at a grain!”

This remark about Lenin was made by Surovkov, platoon commander of the Staff Squadron; after which we lay down to sleep in the hayloft. We slept, all six of us, beneath a wooden roof that let in the stars, warming one another, our legs intermingled. I dreamed: and in my dreams saw women. But my heart, stained with bloodshed, grated and brimmed over.

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