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The Winter Oak – Yuri Nagibin
Yuri Nagibin was born in Moscow in 1924. He was best known for his short stories, which include ‘Komaro’, ‘A Girl and an Echo’ and ‘The Whip’. The themes explored by Nagibin range from war and rural life, to history and music. He wrote scripts for a number of films, such as The Chairman, about life on a collective farm, which became a legend of national Russian cinema. Nagibin died in 1994.
The piercing bell that announced the beginning of the school day had hardly died down when Anna Vasilevna came into the class-room. The children stood up in a friendly way to greet her, and then settled down in their places. Quiet was not immediately established. There was a banging of desk lids and a squeaking of benches, and someone sighed noisily, apparently bidding farewell to the serenity of the morning atmosphere.
‘Today we are going to continue learning about parts of speech.’ The class quietened down, and a heavy lorry with a trailer could be heard crawling along the road.
Anna Vasilevna remembered how last year she used to worry before a lesson, and would repeat to herself like a schoolgirl at an examination, ‘The noun is that part of speech…the noun is that part of speech…’. And she remembered too how she used to be tormented by a ridiculous fear that perhaps they would not understand her.
Anna Vasilevna smiled at this memory, pushed a hairpin back into her heavy knot of hair, and, conscious of the self control which spread like warmth through her whole body, began in a calm voice: ‘The word noun is used for that part of speech which is the subject. In grammar the subject is what we call everything about which we can ask, who is this, or what is this. For instance: “Who is this?” – “A pupil.” Or: “What is this?” – “A book.”
‘May I come in?’ A small figure in worn felt boots and covered in sparklets of frost that were thawing and losing their brightness stood by the half-open door. The round face was burning and as red from the frost as if it had been rubbed with beetroot, while the eyebrows were grey with rime.
‘Late again, Savushkin?’ Like most young teachers, Anna Vasilevna enjoyed being stern, but on this occasion her question sounded plaintive.
Assuming that the school mistress’s words gave him permission to enter the class-room, Savushkin quickly slipped into his place. Anna Vasilevna saw the boy push his oil-cloth bag into his desk, and, without turning his head, say something to his neighbour, presumably asking what she was explaining.
Anna Vasilevna was disappointed by Savushkin’s lateness; it was an unfortunate mishap spoiling a day that had begun well. She had had complaints about Savushkin being late from the geography mistress, a shrivelled little old woman who looked like a moth. Actually she often complained – of noisy classes and inattentive pupils. ‘The first lesson is so difficult,’ the old woman would sigh. ‘It is, for those who cannot control the children and make the lesson interesting,’ Anna Vasilevna thought to herself with self-assurance, and offered to exchange periods. She now felt guilty towards the old lady, who was sufficiently perceptive to recognize the challenge and rebuke in Anna Vasilevna’s amicable suggestion.
‘Do you all understand?’ Anna Vasilevna asked, addressing herself to the class.
‘Yes, yes,’ chorused the children.
‘Good. Now give me some examples.’
There was absolute silence for some seconds, and then someone said uncertainly:
‘Right,’ said Anna Vasilevna, immediately remembering that last year the first example had also been ‘cat’. And then there was an outburst.
‘Window! Table! House! Road!’
‘Right,’ Anna Vasilevna went on saying.
The class bubbled happily. Anna Vasilevna was surprised by the delight with which the children named familiar objects, recognizing, as it were, their new and unaccustomed significance. The range of examples went on widening, but in the first minutes the children stuck to what was closest to them, to tangible objects – wheel, tractor, well, starling-house.
From a desk at the back where fat Vasyata sat there came a high persistent voice:
Then someone said timidly:
‘Town, that’s good,’ said Anna Vasilevna approvingly.
And then the words began to fly:
‘Street, metro, train, film.’
‘That’s enough,’ said Anna Vasilevna. ‘I see you understand.’
Rather unwillingly the voices fell silent’ only fat Vasyata went on muttering his unacknowledged ‘nail’. Suddenly, just as if he had woken up out of a dream, Savushkin stood up in his desk, and shouted out in a ringing tone:
The children began to laugh.
‘Quiet,’ said Anna Vasilevna, banging the table with her hand.
‘Winter oak,’ Savushkin repeated, noticing neither the laughter of his schoolfellows, nor the teacher’s admonishment. He did not speak as the other children had. The words were torn out of his soul, like a confession, or a joyful secret which he could not keep from spilling out of his heart.
Not understanding his strange excitement, Anna Vasilevna hid her irritation with difficulty, and said:
‘Why winter? Just oak.’
‘No, not just oak. Winter oak, that’s the noun!’
‘Sit down, Savushkin’ this is what happens when you are late. “Oak” is a noun, and we have not yet come to what “winter” would be. Kindly come and see me in the staff-room during break.’
‘There’s winter oak for you,’ someone sniggered from a back desk.
Savushkin sat down, smiling, at his own thoughts, and not in the least perturbed by the teacher’s threatening words. ‘A difficult boy,’ thought Anna Vasilevna.
The lesson continued.
‘Sit down,’ said Anna Vasilevna when Savushkin came into the staff room.
The boy sank into an armchair with pleasure, and bounced up and down on the springs a few times.
‘Kindly explain why you are consistently late.’
‘I really don’t know, Anna Vasilevna,’ he said, spreading out his hands in a grown-up way. ‘I leave home an hour beforehand.’
How difficult it is to get at the truth in the very simplest matter! Many of the children lived much further away than Savushkin, and yet none of them spent more than an hour getting to school.
‘You live at Kuzminki?’
‘No, by the sanatorium.’
‘Are you not ashamed to say that you leave home an hour before school starts? It takes fifteen minutes to get from the sanatorium to the road, and then not more than half an hour to walk along the road.’
‘I don’t go along the road. I go the short way, straighting through the forest,’ said Savushkin, as if this circumstance surprised him.
‘Not straighting, straight,’ Anna Vasilevna corrected automatically.
She felt sad and confused as she always did when faced with a child telling lies. She was silent, hoping that Savushkin would say, ‘I’m sorry, Anna Vasilevna, I was snowballing with some boys,’ or something equally simple and innocent, but he only looked at her with big grey eyes and his expression seemed to be saying, ‘There now, it has all been explained. What else do you want of me?’
‘It’s a pity, Savushkin, a great pity! I shall have to speak to your parents.’
‘I’ve only got a mother,’ said Savushkin smiling.
‘I’ll have to call on your mother.’
‘Do come and see her, Anna Vasilevna. My mother will be pleased.’
‘Unfortunately, I have nothing to say that will give her any pleasure. Does your mother work in the mornings?’
‘No, she’s on the second shift, from three o’clock.’
‘Well, that’s good. I am free at two. When lessons are over, you will take me home.’
The path along which Savushkin led Anna Vasilevna began just behind the school building. As soon as they stepped into the forest and the fir branches that looked like paws heavily laden with snow closed behind them, they were immediately transported into another world, an enchanted world of peace and silence. Magpies and crows flew from three to tree, shaking the branches, knocking off the fir cones, and sometimes their wings caught on the dry, brittle twigs, and broke them. Yet not a sound could be heard.
All around everything was white. Only high up the wind had blown on the tops of the soaring weeping birches, so that they showed up black, and their delicate little branches looked as if they had been etched in Indian ink on the blue surface of the sky.
The path ran by the stream, sometimes rising high up and winding along a steep bank.
Now and again the trees would part and reveal sunny, joyful glades, criss-crossed with hare tracks that looked like watch-chains. There would also be heavier tracks shaped like a trefoil, and they must have been made by a larger beast. These tracks ran right into the thicket, in among tree-trunks that had fallen to the wind.
‘An elk has been here,’ said Savushkin, as if talking about a close friend, when he saw that Anna Vasilevna was interested in the tracks. ‘But don’t be afraid,’ he added in response to the glance the schoolmistress threw towards the depths of the forest, ‘the deer is gentle.’
‘Have you seen one?’ asked Anna Vasilevna excitedly.
‘No,’ – Savushkin signed, ‘I haven’t actually seen one, not alive. But I’ve seen his pellets.’
‘Droppings,’ Savushkin explained shyly.
Slipping under an archway of bent branches, the path again ran down too the stream. In some places the stream was covered with a thick white blanket of snow, while in others it was imprisoned in an armour of clear ice, and sometimes living water would gleam through the ice, looking like a dark, malevolent eye.
‘Why has it not all frozen up?’ asked Anna Vailevna.
‘There’s a warm spring which rises up in it, Look! See that little jet?’
Bending over an unfrozen patch in the middle of the ice, Anna Vasilevna could see a thin little thread rising up from the bottom; by the time it reached the surface it had broken into tiny bubbles. This minute stem with the little bubbles on it looked like a spray of lily of the valley.
‘There are loads of springs like that here,’ said Savushkin enthusiastically. ‘The stream is alive even under the snow.’
He brushed away the snow, and they saw the coal-black but transparent water.
Anna Vasilevna noticed that, when the snow fell into the water, it did not melt away, but immediately turned into slush, a greenish jelly suspended in the water as if it were algae. She was so pleased with this that she began to kick snow into the water with the toe of her boot, and was enraptured when a particularly intricate figure emerged from a large lump of snow. She was so enthralled that she did not at once notice that Savushkin had gone on, and was waiting for her, sitting high up in the fork of a bough overhanging the stream. Anna Vasilevna caught him up. Here the action of the warm springs came to an end, and the stream was covered with a thin film of ice. Light shadows darted rapidly over the marble surface.
‘Look, the ice is so thin that we can even see the current!’
‘No, Anna Vasilevna, I’m swaying this branch, and that’s its shadow moving.’
Anna Vasilevna bit her tongue. Clearly here in the forest she had better keep quiet.
Savushkin strode on again in front of the schoolmistress, bending down slightly and looking around him.
And the forest led them on still farther along its intricate, tangled paths. It seemed as if there was no end to the trees, the snowdrifts and the silence of the sun-dappled twilight.
Suddenly, in the distance, a smoky-blue chink appeared. The trees began to thin out, there was more space and it was fresher. Soon there was no longer a chink, but a broad shaft of sunlight appeared before them, and in it something glistened and sparkled, swarming with frosty stars.
The path went round a hazel bush, and straightaway the forest fell away on either side. In the middle of the glade, clothed in glittering white raiment, huge and majestic as a cathedral, stood an oak. It seemed as if the trees had respectfully stood aside to give their older brother room to display himself in all his strength. The lower branches spread out over the glade like a canopy.
Snow was packed into the deep corrugations of the bark, and the trunk, three times the normal girth, seemed to be embroidered with silver thread. Few of the leaves that had withered in the autumn had fallen, and the oak was covered right up to the top with leaves encased in snow.
‘There it is, the winter oak!’
Anna Vasilevna approached the oak timidly, and the mighty, magnanimous guardian of the forest quietly waved a branch in greeting to her.
Savushkin had no idea what was going on in the schoolmistress’s heart, and he busied himself at the foot of the oak, as if approaching an old acquaintance.
‘Look, Anna Vasilevna!’
He had managed to drag away a lump of snow that had stuck to the ground and was covered with the remains of dead grass. There, in a little hollow, lay a ball wrapped in rotted leaves as thin as spiders’ webs. Sharp-tipped quills stuck out through the leaves. Anna Vasilevna guessed that this was a hedgehog.
‘See how he has muffled himself up!’
Savushkin carefully covered the hedgehog up with his unpretentious blanket. Then he scraped away the snow from another root to reveal a tiny grotto, with a bunch of icicles hanging from its roof. A brown frog was sitting inside; it could have been made of cardboard, and its skin, tightly drawn over its bone structure, might have been lacquered. Savushkin touched the frog, but it did not move.
‘It’s pretending to be dead,’ said Savushkin laughing. But just let the sun warm it, and you’ll see how it hops about!’
He went on showing Anna Vasilevna his own small world. A number of other lodgers – beetles, lizards and small insects – had taken refuge at the foot of the oak. Some had buried themselves under the roots, others had wriggled into crevices in the bark; emaciated, practically hollow inside, they were surviving the winter in a sleep from which they could not be woken. The mighty tree, laden with life, had gathered so much living warmth round itself that the poor creatures could not have found a better lodging. Anna Vasilevna was gazing with delighted interest at this secret forest life, hitherto unknown to her, when she heard Savushkin exclaim in concern:
‘Oh we’ll miss mother now!’
Anna Vasilevna hurriedly looked at her watch – it was a quarter past three. She felt as if she had walked into a trap. Privately asking the oak to forgive her for being human and slightly cunning, she said:
‘Well, Savushkin, this just shows that the short cut is not always the surest. You’ll have to go by the road.’
Savushkin did not say anything; he just hung his head.
‘Heavens,’ thought Anna Vasilevna painfully, ‘could one have shown one’s incompetence more clearly?’ She remembered the lesson that day, and all her other lessons: how inadequately, drily and coldly she had spoken of words and language, without which man is dumb and powerless to express his feelings before the world, when all the time her own native tongue was as fresh, beautiful and rich as life is generous and beautiful.
And she had considered herself an able teacher! Quite possibly she had not yet taken the first step along that road which takes more than a whole life to traverse. And how can one find that road?’ Perhaps the first signpost was dimly visible in the delight, incomprehensible to her at the time, with which the children shouted out ‘tractor’, ‘well’, ‘starling-house’.
‘Well, Savushkin, thank you for the walk. Of course you can come this way.’
‘Thank you, Anna Vasilevna.’
Savushkin blushed’ he very much wanted to say to the schoolmistress that he would never be late again, but he was afraid of telling a lie. He turned up the collar of his jacket and pulled down his cap with the car flaps.
‘I’ll see you home.’
‘You needn’t, Savushkin. I’ll go by myself.’
He looked at the schoolmistress doubtfully, and then he picked up a stick from the ground, broke off its crooked end and gave the stick to Anna Vasilevna.
‘If the elk comes near you, hit him on the back, and he’ll run away. Or better still, just wave the stick at him, and that will be enough. Otherwise he might take offence and leave the forest altogether.’
‘All right, Savushkin, I won’t hit him.’
When she had gone a little way, Anna Vasilevna turned round to have a last look at the oak, rosy white in the setting sun, and at its foot she saw a small, dark figure. Savushkin had not gone home. He was guarding his teacher from afar. And suddenly Anna Vasilevna understood that the most amazing thing in the forest was not the winter oak, but the small human being in the worn felt boots, a mysterious and wonderful future citizen.
She waved to him and quietly went off along the twisting path.
about 2 years ago
Lois as Anna Vasilyevna: