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Autobiographical prose.


Translated by Inessa B. Fishbeyn and C. D. C. Reeve.

THEY 1 EXISTED ONLY in the plural, because they never walked one by one, always in pairs. Even with only one punnet of berries, two of them came, a younger one and an older one, one a bit younger, one a bit older. For they were all of a collective age—a proprietary age—between thirty and forty. All of them had an identical face, tan, amber, under an identical headscarf, a white one with a black edge of eyebrow. Their collective downcast, identical eye, with its large brown eyelid and whole broom-full of lashes, burned you. And they had the same name too, a collective one, and not even a first name, but a patronymic: Kirillovnas, and behind their backs—Khlystovki.

Now I’d be inclined to say that this many-daughtered Kirill existed only in the daughters’ patronymic. Back then I didn’t think about it…

Why Kirillovnas? When there wasn’t a trace of any Kirill. And who was that Kirill? Was he really their father? And how come he had so many daughters—thirty? forty? more?—and not even one son? Because that red-haired Christ was clearly not his son, since he wasn’t a brother to the Kirillovnas. Now I’d be inclined to say that this many-daughtered Kirill existed only in the daughters’ patronymic. Back then I didn’t think about it, in the same way I didn’t think about why the ship was Ekaterina. It was Ekaterina—that’s all. They were Kirillovnas—that’s all.

The sharp-sounding word “Khlystovki,” which could shock me by its contrast with their staidness and propriety, I explained to myself as being like the willows, under which and behind which they lived like a flock of white-headed birds: white-headed because of their headscarves; birds, because of the constant comment of Nanny when we passed it, “And there is the Khlystov’s nest”—no condemnation, just a simple marker of the next stage away from our dacha “Pesochnaya”2 to Tarusa: “Here, we just passed the chapel… Here’s the well: it’s half-way… And here is their…”

Their Khlystov nest was strictly speaking the entrance to the city of Tarusa. It was the last one—after I don’t know how many—downhill. It was complete darkness, after so much light (at first complete, then immediately green); a sudden freshness, after heat; after dryness, dampness; and along a split log, which was so deeply rooted in the ground that it was as if it grew out of it. Across the cold, black, loud, fast stream, behind the willow wickerwork fence, the first on the left hand side, invisible behind the willows and elder trees was—“their Khlystov nest.” It was precisely a nest and not a house, because the house was utterly invisible behind all those thickets, and if the gates were slightly open sometimes, then one’s eye, stunned by all this beauty and redness, especially that of the red-currants, didn’t notice the greyish roof anywhere, didn’t include it, as if it were just a part of one’s own eyebrow. There wasn’t any talk about the Kirillovna’s house, but only about their garden. The garden swallowed up the house. If anyone had asked me what were the Khlystovki doing, I’d answer without thinking, “walking in the garden and eating berries.”

But a bit more about the entrance. It was the entrance into another kingdom, the entrance itself was another kingdom, extending along the whole street, if it could be called a street, but we can’t call it so, because on the left, except for their never-ending willow wickerwork fence, there wasn’t anything else, and on the right—there was burdock, sand, and that very ship, Ekaterina… It wasn’t an entrance, but a crossing: from us (a lonely house in lonely nature) to there (to people—to the post office, to the fair, to the wharf, to Natkin’s shop, and later—to the city boulevard)—a middle-ground, between-kingdoms, an intermediate zone. And suddenly, a spark of illumination: it was not an entrance, you see, not a crossing, but—an exit! (The first house is always the last one, isn’t it?) It’s not an exit from Tarusa but—from all cities! Out of all Tarusas, all walls, all ties, out of your own name, out of your own skin—an exit! Out of all flesh, into—expansiveness.

Out of the whole of Tarusa, to be more clear, out of all guests, all sweets, other people’s children…, I most of all loved this moment of going downhill, entering, descending into—the green, cold, darkness of the stream, the very moment of passing—the gray, unending willow-elderberry, wickerwork fencing, behind which—that’s how it stayed with me—all the berries were ripe at the same time, for example, the strawberries together with the ash berries. Behind this fence, it was always summer, the whole summer at once, together with all the red and sweet of it, where as soon as you entered (but we never did!) everything jumped into your hand at the same time: strawberries, cherries, currents, and especially elderberries!

The apples, however, I don’t remember. Only the berries. For apples—as strange as it may seem in a city like Tarusa, where during a good harvest year (and every year was a good one!) they were brought to the open market in large laundry baskets, and even pigs wouldn’t eat them anymore—the Kirillovnas did not have, because they came to us for them, to our “old garden,” which was aged and neglected by us, but with very valuable sorts of apples running wild, half-edible, which now went only for drying. But it wasn’t they who came for the apples, not the steady, downcast-eyed ones, but those, that is, their God’s Mother and Christ, the red-haired one, gaunt, with a split beard and those eyes—which I’d now call: “water-drunken” eyes.They were shabbily dressed and barefoot, their Christ and—God’s Mother. The old woman, who wasn’t amber by now, but like tanned leather, leathery, although not as shabbily dressed, was still slightly scary.

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Our parents’ attitude to such a raid was… as if it was fated to happen. “Christ came for apples again…” or “God’s Mother and Christ are walking nearby again….” They didn’t ask permission, and the others didn’t forbid it. God’s Mother and Christ were something like a house disaster, a predetermined misfortune, a fate, inherited together with the house, because the Kirillovnas were in Tarusa before us, before everyone, maybe before even before the Tartars themselves, whose rusty round shots we often found in the stream. It wasn’t a raid, but a collection of dues. But, however, it has to be added, that when we children caught them at it, they, especially Christ, somehow tried to stand aside, hide, retire behind another apple tree, while God’s Mother was hurriedly finishing putting the apples in a big canvas bag. At such moments, they didn’t say a thing to one another and it didn’t come into our heads to confirm our presence with our voices. We somehow had a silent agreement that whatever they are—doing, we aren’t—seeing. As if someone, either we or they, and maybe both—aren’t here, that this whole thing was—well, whatever…

—Papa! We saw Christ!”

—He came again?


—Well, let Christ be with him!…

About the apples they took, our parents didn’t ask, and we didn’t tell. Sometimes we found the red-haired Christ sleeping right there, in a pile of hay. The old God’s Mother sat nearby, fanning away the flies. Without saying a word to one another, on tiptoe and with raised eyebrows and eyes pointing to our “finding,” we left, went to our “pit” where we sat, with our legs swinging, casting sidelong glances at the still sleeping and still fanning ones. Sometimes Nanny said in front of us, not to us, but to our—Governess, that this Christ was a bitter drunkard and that he was found in the pit, but since we ourselves sat in the pit, it didn’t surprise us at all, and the word “bitter” qualifying the word drunkard, aroused in the mouth the vivid bitterness of wormwood (we constantly ate everything around us), after which we could drink a whole bucket of water.

Sometimes Christ sang and God’s Mother echoed him, and we weren’t surprised that she sang with a more male voice, and he—with a more female, high one…like a mosquito and a bumblebee.

SOMETIMES CHRIST SANG and God’s Mother echoed him, and we weren’t surprised that she sang with a more male voice, and he—with a more female, high one. First, it didn’t surprise us because nothing could surprise the Tsvetaev’s children, second, because she was dark and strong and he—light and weak, so it turned out that each of them in fact sang in their own voice, fitting it in color and power—like a mosquito and a bumblebee. And the song that went into our green pit from the green apple wilderness was about the same green gardens. We didn’t even think about (and I still don’t know) whether they were mother and son. Likewise, we didn’t ask our parents about it, not even Nanny, whom we weren’t afraid of, why they were God’s Mother and Christ. It wasn’t that we believed that they were—the ones in the icon (the ones—right there in the icon—besides they had—apples…). So, they weren’t them, but not entirely not-them.

Maybe even the names themselves instilled awe in us—not just anyone is called God’s Mother and Christ!—and inculcated some sort of paralysis of doubt and judgment. Our feelings went approximately as follows: “If they are stealing apples, they aren’t exactly Christ and God’s Mother, but since, they are nevertheless Christ and God’s Mother, they aren’t exactly stealing.” And they weren’t stealing—they took them, as I now see, and hid, not from us (children themselves are—beggars and thieves), but from the eyes of others. In the same way, children and animals (and not only children and animals, believe me!) can’t stand being watched. In a word, for us this wandering pair weren’t just—people, and if not really those ones, but still, in a way—like them too.

Christ and God’s Mother lived (that is they walked, I don’t know anything else about their life) separately from the others, but the two of them always together, never apart, and I, looking at them, often thought: “It must be that this is how that God’s Mother walked behind that Christ.” Because she walked precisely behind him, following precisely on his heels, she was behind him the exact distance needed not to step on his heels (bare ones). She walked as if supporting him with her body—he himself was weakened, shattered, as if he walked not where he wanted but where his foot wanted, but even his foot didn’t firmly know where. Sometimes in went into a rut, sometimes into a stone, sometimes into a hummock, and sometimes, completely without any sense—crookedly.

They could be seen at the market, and on the roads, and in the burdock fields, and by the Oka river… But—like the sisters, who never came for apples, this mother and son never brought berries: it was crazy even to think that suddenly—Christ would bring strawberries! And while the Kirillovnas bowed low when they met someone, God’s Mother never bowed, and as for Christ, needless to say there was—not even a glance, but with his whole body he looked past everyone!

“Miss! The Kirilovnas brought strawberries… Should we get some?”

We stand in the hall, with mother in front, and we, cowardly—behind her, so as not to show sudden greed on our faces (the unconscious greed which she persecuted you for the most!), looking slightly around her, stretching out our necks. Finally, we tear our gaze away from the pile of strawberries, and suddenly meet just the slightly raised eyes (we were so small back then!) of a Klystov, with her understanding grin. And while the berries are being poured from the punnet into a bowl, the Kirillovnas (which one? the entire one! the one with all thirty faces, under all thirty headscarves!), not yet having let go with her downcast eyes our mother’s back, calmly and without hurry put—into the closest, the bravest, the greediest mouth (most of the time—mine!) one berry after another, as if into an abyss. How did she know that mother forbade eating—like that, before dinner, so many at once, and, in general—being greedy? She knew it in the same way we knew that—mother never forbade anything in words. Everything, with—eyes. 

The Kirillovnas, I certify with delight, loved me most of all, maybe precisely for my greediness, bloom, strength—Andrusha was tall and thin, Asya was small and thin—therefore it was a daughter like me that they, childless, wanted—one for all of them!

“And the Khlystovki love me the most!”—with this thought I fell asleep, offended.—For Mama, Augusta Ivanovna, and Nanny loved Asya the most (while Papa, due to his kindness, loved “everyone”—the most). But Dedushka and the Khlystovki—loved me the most! But with his Ostsee3 origin, this proper grandfather wouldn’t thank me for putting him together with them!

Of all the images there are of the Tarusa garden of Eden, there is a most heavenly one, because it’s—the only one I have. The Khlystovki invited us as a family to haymaking day, and oh, surprise, amazement (mother couldn’t stand family outings or, in general anything with—a crowd of people, especially with all her children there—in the public eye) and, oh, complete shock—they took us. Father, of course, insisted.

This one will get sick—Mother argued, above my head, guilty in advance— she’ll be jolted about for sure on the horses and she’ll get sick. She always gets sick, everywhere she gets sick. I don’t understand who she takes after. Papasha (this is what she called the other “grandfather”) doesn’t get sick, I don’t get sick, you don’t get sick, nor, finally, do Lera, Andrusha, or Asya get sick, but she gets sick after only one glance at the wheels.

—Well, she’ll get sick (father agrees meekly), she’ll throw up and that’ll be that… (And clearly thinking about something else:) she’ll throw up: wonderful… (And catching himself suddenly:) But perhaps she won’t, in the fresh air…

—What does fresh air have to do with it? (Mother gets het up, being offended ahead of time by the very thought of the road.) On a train, a wagon, a boat, a landau, anything on springs, or without springs, on a ferry, on an elevator, she always—gets sick, everywhere, and we called her Marine-girl, for heaven’s sake!

—I don’t get sick on foot (I put in hastily but meekly, getting braver in father’s presence).

—We’ll sit her facing the horses, we’ll take some mints (father tries to persuade her) and, finally, we’ll take another dress for her—just in case.

—Only, I don’t want to sit near her! Not near and not across! (Andrusha, whose face had been getting darker and darker for a while, says irritably.) Every time I have to sit with her, like back then, on the train, you remember, Mama, when…

—We’ll take eau de cologne (father continues) and I will sit—next to her. (“But, you, please, don’t hold back,” he says confidentially to me, “if you get nauseous—say so. We’ll stop the horses, you’ll get out, breathe through it. It’s not a fire, you see… But it’s indeed strange: why do you always get sick?”—And, being conciliatory: “Nature, nature, nothing can be done about it. You can even say to me, ‘Papa, I want to pick tha-at poppy!’ You’ll quickly jump out and run farther away so as not to—upset Mama!”)

In a word, we went there—with that very poppy in my hand—we made it—to the Khlystov’s haymaking, far behind Tarusa, in some sort of water meadow.

—Ah, Marina–malina,4 why are you so green? Did you get up early, little dove? Didn’t get enough sleep, didn’t you, our beauty?

THE KIRILLOVNAS—SURROUNDED me, entwined me, enticed me, carried me away, passing me from hand to hand, as if drawing me into some sort of circle dance, all of them at once and at the same time possessing me, as if I were some sort of collective Khlystov treasure. I don’t remember my family—Papa, Mama, Governess, Nanny, Lera, Andrusha, Asya—being in this paradise. I was theirs. With them, I raked and winnowed. In the midst of their moving around, I rested. With them, I dived in and out again like that Fido (“in haste!”) in the undying poem.5 I went to the spring with them; with them I started a campfire; with them I drank tea from a huge colorful mug, biting off, like them, a piece of sugar; with them I…

“Marinushka, our beauty, stay with us, you’ll be our daughter, you’ll live with us in the garden, you’ll sing our songs…”—“Mama won’t let me.”—“But would you stay?” (I’m quiet.)—“Of course she wouldn’t—she’d take pity on her Mama. Mama probably loves you so-o?” (I’m quiet.) “I dare say she wouldn’t give you away even for a lot of money?”—“But we won’t ask Mama. We’ll take you away on our own! (one of them, the younger one, replies) We’ll take her and lock her in our garden and won’t let anyone in. So she’ll live with us, behind the wickerwork willow fencing. (A wild, burning, unrealizable dream suddenly lit up in me: what if?) You’ll pick cherries with us, we’ll call you Masha…” (the same one says, melodiously).—“Don’t be frightened, dear little dove” (the older one says, taking my rapture for fear) “nobody will take you, but you’ll come to Tarusa for a visit with Papa and Mama, or with Nanny.—You walk by us probably every day, we all look at you. You don’t see us, but we see everything, everyone… You’ll come all dressed up, in a white piqué dress, buttons on your little shoes…”—“And we’ll dress you up into everything of ours” (adds the melodious, indefatigable one) “in a black little cassock, white little headscarf, and we’ll let your hair grow, you’ll have braids…”—“Why are you scaring her, my sister? She’ll really believe it! Everyone has his own fate. She will be ours, anyway—our dear, dreamed-of, precious guest, our little imaginary daughter…”

And hugging, squeezing, raising, and—ooh!—impelling me up onto the cart, on top of the heap of hay, up in the sea-blue sky, from where everything could be seen at once: Papa in his coarse silk suit, Mama in her red headscarf, Augusta Ivanovna in her Tyrolean one, the yellow campfire, and the very faraway sand-licks on the Oka River…  

I’d like to lie in the Tarusa Khlystov’s cemetery, under the elder bush, in one of these graves with a silver dove, where grow the reddest, the biggest, wild strawberries around.

But if this is unrealistic, if I couldn’t lie there, and if by now there is no such cemetery, I’d like for there to be on one of those hills, where the Kirillovnas walked to us in Pesochnoye, and we to them in Tarusa, a stone from the Tarusa quarry: Here Marina Tsevetaeva would have liked to lie.6

Marina Tsvetaeva (1892–1941)  is an internationally famous Russian poet, one of the greatest of the twentieth century, whose poetry has been translated into English and many other languages. Her wonderful—and often very funny—prose works are less known, especially in the Anglophone world.

Ina Fishbeyn (Russian) and David Reeve (Irish) are married and live in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where David is a professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina. Their translation of Tsvetaeva’s autobiographical novella, The History of Sonechka, is forthcoming from Columbia University Press. They are currently translating Tsvetaeva’s prose works, of which “Khlystovki” is one.

  1. Khlystovki are the women of the Khlyst sect. Khlyst is a religious Christian sect of mystics, who practice self-flagellation and religious ecstasy during their night services. The name stems from the words for whip and for Christ. It was an underground sect from late 17th to early 20th century, which split off from the Russian Orthodox Church and belonged to the Spiritual Christian Movement. They believed in the reincarnation of the soul and often there was a Christ figure and a God’s Mother among the members. There was an old settlement of this sect in Tarusa. More information can be found in A. Bely’s novel Silver Dove.
  2. The Tsvetaev’s summerhouse.
  3. The southern and eastern shores of the Baltic, where, starting in the 11th century, migrants from Germany settled.
  4. A raspberry.
  5. The poem is Apollon Nikolayevich Maykov (1821–1897), “Haymaking.”
  6. The old cemetery is there and her daughter, Ariadna Efron, is buried in it. Marina committed suicide in 1941 and was buried in Yelabuga. —Ed.
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