Anthology of Modern Slavonic Literature in Prose and Verse/The Ploughman
W. GOMULICKI: THE PLOUGHMAN.
The scene I was gazing at looked like one of Holbein's immortal sketches. A sketch forming the nucleus of the cycle, "The Dance of Death," representing an old villager who is ploughing the hard soil at sunset, while death is urging on his horse. My villager and his plough were likewise floundering along through the clayey soil, and above them the invisible envoy of destruction appeared to be creeping. . . . Only the landscape was different. In Holbein's picture we see clusters of shady trees, roofs of numerous dwellings, picturesque bridle-paths, the turret of a stone-built church, and, on the horizon, the curving line of a mountain chain. A rich, southern nature, full of diversity and solemnity. The setting sun is beautiful and its beams are extended fan-shaped over the horizon, sending their shafts beyond the mountains and trees.
But the Mazurian plain was wearisome and humdrum. The earth, as if it consisted of widely spilt and somewhat crinkled waves, stretched in a grey, boundless mass of clods to the remotest line of the horizon. A narrow, garnet-coloured strip of distant woods divided it from the horizon which was also grey and only at one spot, close above the wood, slightly tinged with yellow. The yellow tinge was a sign that somewhere yonder behind the ashy curtain of clouds, the sun was dying away. The colouring of the picture was so thin that it would have been possible to paint the whole of it, including the old man ploughing and his pair of lean horses, with Indian ink or sepia,—in the style of those old aquatints, upon which nature is represented without colour, as if it were seen through a piece of blackened glass. The soil, as far as the eye could reach, was cut up into plots, and these girdles, here and there zig-zag, ran lengthwise in various directions, even as the fields differed one from another. Some were completely black, others a brownish red, others again were brightening into a pale ashen colour, which suggested the notion that into his Indian ink the painter had been pouring more and more water. Here and there stood, as if upon guard, a wild pear-tree, isolated, mournful, silent. Here and there the ground was a little hollowed out, and in the cavity, which was clearly damp, grew alders with glistening leaves. The largest patches of green were formed by a few limes and poplars, which served as a screen behind which the village was concealed.
The existence of the village could be distinguished only by the senses of hearing and smell. The wind, a cold evening wind, which rustied in the dry grass and dishevelled the old ploughman's long grey hair, bore sounds and scents from sequestered human dwellings. There could be heard the dull droning of the bass-viol which was being played at the inn, and the sudden "Ho" which burst from the throat of a tipsy farm-hand. There could be smelt the sharp scent of baked rape-seed and the penetrating odour of coffee, which was being roasted in the kitchen at the parsonage.
There all was joy and bustle, here sorrow and dull silence prevailed. The old man looked as if he were weighed down by the burden of a whole century. His back was arched, his head drooped to the ground, his nose was long, sharp and crooked as the beak of an old falcon. His whole bearing revealed the greatest feebleness and a forcible dragging towards the earth. And the earth seemed to be waiting impatiently for him, alluring him like a siren to her black bosom, reeking with dampness. From beneath his straw hat emerged wisps of grey hair, matted and resembling white ribbons. His projecting chin was covered with the unshaven bristles of his beard. His eyes and cheeks were hollow. His temples, his face and his twisted neck were intertwined with a hundred wrinkles in a shapeless net, like the zig-zag lines that a moth eats out on the cover of an old book. At every jerk of the horse, the old man staggered, as if he were falling. It was difficult to believe that he was guiding the plough. It might rather be said that the plough was his support and that it was dragging him after it. Every moment that the horses stopped, the plough stopped also, and the old man struggled with an evil-sounding cough. His cough was curiously similar to the muffled echo which can be heard when the nails are being knocked into a coffin. But hardly had his cough abated than the horses were plodding on again, and the glistening iron cut its way into the earth, throwing up black clods to the right and to the left. The ploughman did not think of resting; his gaze hovered from the earth to the horizon, comparing the length of the paths which the plough and the sun still had to traverse. His powerful lips and toothless jaws were moving as though they were chewing something up. He chewed the words which broke heavily away from his mouth. The whisper of his voice was carried to me from time to time. The old man wan saying to himself: "My ears have grown deaf; my eyes have lost their sight. Merciful Jesus, have pity on me. . . . My feet can no longer move, my life is coming to an end. . . Merciful Jesus, have compassion on me!"
This old man, reciting the litany of the dying, was the one whom I had seen in the town a week before. The district doctor, a surly man who gave advice to the poor people from the window of his carriage the while they stood on the pavement with uncovered heads, remarked to him as he wheezed at the smoke of a pipe: "To your coffin, gaffer, to your coffin. . . Look at him! He's a hundred years old and still he wants to go on living." But the old villager shook his white head and wailed: "Ah, kind sir, ah!"
When I now saw him at his work, I could not help exclaiming: "I see that you've got well again, gaffer, as you're following the plough."
He stood still, panted for breath, and said in a voice that sounded as if it were coming out of a well:
"Well again? I follow the plough because the plot must be ploughed over for the winter crop. . . now I'm ploughing about the last two ridges. . . and that'll be the end of it."
"Do you hope to see the harvest?"
"Jesus preserve! This very week they'll bury me in the holy soil."
"How do you know that?"
He raised his eyebrows a little and silently opened his lips, as if he were unusually surprised at this question. Then he shook his head and remarked with emphasis:
"I know, and that's enough."
The horses dragged the plough and the old man a few paces farther. And when the triple team stopped afresh, I asked:
"But if you do not expect the harvest, why are you ploughing the field?"
This question, too, seemed to be unintelligible to him.
"Why?" he answered in surprise. "Not for myself, of course, but for those who will come after me." And breaking off the conversation, he started shouting at the horses to make them turn to the new, and last strip of the field.
I took leave of the old man and went my way. His words sank deep into my soul. I repeated them to myself until the stars appeared in the sky, and when, before falling asleep, I pondered as ever, upon death, it seemed to me to be something as elusive and as untraceable as the merging of one colour with another in a rainbow.