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The Fir Tree, a short story by Mykhailo Kotsyubynsky

 

Christmas Eve came. Preparations for the holiday were in full swing in Yakym’s house. The stove blazed, the borsch simmered. Olena, Yakym’s wife and Vasylko’s mother, was making holubtsi — cabbage leaves stuffed with minced meat. Vasylko was sitting in the corner, crushing the poppy seeds in a mortar with a pestle — the crushed poppy seeds were to be used in making kutya, a Christmas dish of cooked wheat grains, poppy seeds and honey.

Vasylko, twelve, was the eldest child in the family. While wielding the pestle, he kept alternately looking at his two younger sisters who were playing with the kitten, and at his father who was sitting on the bench near the stove, his head hung low.

“Why is my father so glum,” wondered Vasylko, thinking to himself. “Is it because he is unwell, or because there’s no money to buy back Mum’s pawned boots?”

The entrance door creaked and opened, and a stranger walked in.

“Good day to you all,” the man said. Addressing Yakym, he inquired, “Would you, my good man, sell that fir tree which is growing in your garden? I was told by my masters to find a good fir tree for their children, you know, to decorate it for Christmas. I’ve been looking around for it for two days now, and could not find a good one. And yours is just what I want.”

Yakym did not respond immediately, but after a small silence he asked,

“And what would you pay for it?”

“Tell your price, and if it’s reasonable, I’ll pay it.”

“I want three rubles for it,” said Yakym.

“Father,” Vasylko intruded the conversation, his voice trembling, “but it’s…it’s my tree, you promised we’d decorate it for Christmas after my teacher had praised me for doing well in school!”

Tears welled up in Vasylko’s blue eyes — it was such a nice, slim fir tree that gave a good cheer with its bright green color to the garden in the grip of white winter.

Yakym gave his son a quick glance. Vasylko intercepted that glance and saw that it was full of unutterable sadness.

“All right, I’ll pay three rubles for your tree,” said the man, “but you must deliver it today so that it could be decorated tonight.”

“Deliver it? Look, I’m sick and my boy here is too young yet,” said Yakym despondently.

The man looked Vasylko over and said,

“You mean this boy? He’s old enough to bring over a Christmas tree. It’s hardly an hour ride from here to town. If he sets off right now he’ll be back home before it’s dark.

Yakym, after a short hesitation, said, making a gesture of resignation with his hand,

“Hope he’ll manage. The town is indeed not too far.”

The man gave the address to which the tree was to be delivered, paid an advance, and left.

The prospect of earning three rubles cheered Yakym up — it would be possible to redeem his wife’s boots from the tailor to whom they had been pawned. Thank God, Olena will not have to wear her old, worn boots for the holiday!

Yakym got up, put on a winter coat and heavy, tall boots, picked an axe and went out of the house. Vasylko followed him.

Yakym’s boots sank deep into the snow that carpeted the garden in a thick layer. As he headed for the fir tree, he left a trail of footprints behind him. Vasylko tried to step into them but failing that, he plowed through the powdery snow. The bare, black trees in the garden bristling with naked twigs stood deadly still. The white, sugar-like snow was dappled and crisscrossed with their transparent shadows. The green of the fir tree needles shone like a beacon from the back of the garden.

Both Yakym and his son felt pity for the cheerfully young, green tree which seemed to be overjoyed to have them for company; it even appeared to wave its green branches in a happy welcome…

Yakym came up very close it, raised his axe and struck the trunk close to the ground. The tree shook from top to bottom as though in a sudden, unexpected pain and fear. Several needles fell on the snow. Yakym kept hacking away at the tree which quivered and writhed as though in raging fever. Vasylko expected to hear its moans.

There was a crunching sound, the tree began to lean to one side, and then fell stretching in its full length on the snow. Vasylko was so sorry for the fallen fir tree that he was on the verge of tears. He watched his father pick the tree by the trunk and hoist it over his shoulder. As he walked back towards the house the top of the tree dragged over the snow, leaving a shallow furrow.

Vasylko looked at the new stump and tears rolled down his cheeks. It was so painful to know that only some moments ago there, at the place where now the stump was, stood a beautiful tree which had been promised to him for Christmas! He began to cover the stump with snow and very soon it completely disappeared from sight.

“Vasylko!” called out Yakym who was already standing by the house. “Come over here!”

Vasylko hurried up to join his father.

“Get the sleigh ready, son. You’ll take this tree to those who’ve bought it. And don’t tarry — it’s midday already and you have to get there and back before the darkness falls…” Glancing at the sky, he added, “Let’s hope those clouds won’t bring snow. Now, get moving, son, it’s getting late…”

The fir tree was put onto the old and battered sleigh; the horses were harnessed to it. Vasylko put on his kozhushyna — short sheepskin coat, got into the sleigh and set out on his journey.

 

II

A chilly wind sprang up. The milky, roiling clouds were inexorably spreading over the sky. The two small dun horses were running friskily and in good unison. The road was slippery and the sleigh kept skidding. On both sides of the road stretched fields covered with snow as though with a white tablecloth. The hard, bluish snow sparkled in myriads of gems in the sun that emerged from behind the clouds. Black crows dotted the snow here and there. Once in a while they would go up into the air only to settle down again. The wind was increasing; the clouds obscured the sun completely, and it began snowing, just a little at first. Vasylko urged the horses to move faster, and the dark wall of the forest began to rise before him. Once he reached the forest, Vasylko would know that he had traveled half of the way — the other half lay through the forest.

When Vasylko entered the forest, it began to snow harder. The gusts of chilly wind threw wet snow into his eyes and under the collar of his coat. Huge oaks stood menacingly on both sides of the road, indifferent to the snow that covered its branches, or to the wind. The horses, plastered with snow, changed color from dun to white. Vasylko pulled his sleeves over his hands, pushed his hat lower and bent his head in an attempt to protect his eyes from driving snow and wind. And he missed the moment when the horses left the road and turned to the side. The sleigh skidded, hit a small mound and stopped with a loud cracking sound. Vasylko was tossed out of the sleigh into the snow. The horses stood still. Vasylko pulled himself up to his feet, shook the snow off himself and rushed to the sleigh. The blow had shattered the old rotten wood of the sleigh and now the top of the sleigh and the runners were separate pieces. Vasylko walked around the pieces, ready to burst into tears. There was no way of putting the pieces together again. He looked around and thought, “I’ll wait for some time — maybe someone will travel along the road and will give me some help.” But there was no sound of any movement except for the wind howling among the trees. The snow went on falling, heavier than before, blurring and dimming the surroundings.

Vasylko walked to where he thought the road should be but it was not there where he expected to find it. The place looked totally unfamiliar. He stood still, his eyes round with fright and confusion. He realized he must have lost his way. What should he do now? To leave the broken sleigh where it was and ride back home on one of the horses?

Vasylko unharnessed the horses, got onto one of them and rode away along what he thought was the road. The other horse followed. The horses sank deep in the snow and moved slowly. Vasylko realized it was not the road that he was riding along — he was moving across the forest in an unknown direction. “I must find the road,” he told himself. “I should return to the sleigh and from there try again to find the road.” He turned the horses around and rode back to the place where he thought the sleigh was. He rode on and on — but no sleigh came into view.

“I must have ridden too far to the left, so I should turn to the right.” But he must have turned the wrong way again. The dusk was quickly turning into darkness. All Vasylko could see were the thick frozen branches and dark boles of the trees around him, and the blinding, swirling snow.

Vasylko rode on — but still no sleigh. The horses grew tired of having to move though deep snow and stopped. Vasylko knew he got thoroughly lost. He was terrified — and he was cold too. He burst into tears. The chilling wind whirled the snow around him and he thought of his warm house — the oil lamp lights the room cheerfully, on the table stands a dish with kutya; his father and two sisters are at the table; his mother brings in dinner; everybody is full of festive spirit, they rejoice at the coming holiday, they are talking animatedly; boys and girls from the neighboring households come to greet the family with Christmas, they ask about Vasyl… But maybe it is gloom that fills the house, not joy? His mother is weeping — Vasylko has not come back! His father is very upset, nobody has touched the food…

Oh how he wished he could get out of this dead forest, find the road back home… Vasylko urged the horses to move on and they did, albeit slowly in the deep snow… Suddenly, Vasylko seemed to see his house ahead of him! It even seemed to him he saw glimpses of light in the windows! Vasylko was overwhelmed with joy — but a few moments later the house turned into a big bush, the snow hanging on it like cotton wool. He was drained of hope. What should he do? He looked around — huge oaks, like some primeval monsters, stretched their gnarled black branches towards him, ready to grab him. These oaks were like corpses, wrapped in white, crowding in on him. Horror gripped him. His hat was knocked off his head by a branch, the cold snow stung his face. Vasylko, fighting his fear, slid down from the horse to pick up the hat and at that moment he heard distant howling. The howling echoed through the forest, now coming from all sides. Vasylko was petrified with fear. The howling made his hair stand on end, his heart missed a beat. Wolves! the thought flashed through his mind. He scrambled back on his horse in a mounting panic and rode off into the forest.

After some time he found himself at the edge of the forest. A field stretched on into the distance. He saw a big wooden cross standing at the skirts of the forest, and the sight cheered him up. He thought he recognized the place. “It’s not far from the place where my uncle lives!”

Vasylko rode on in the direction he thought would take him to his uncle’s. At that moment he saw dots of light appearing from the forest. Next, he saw swift black shadows moving quickly on the snow, darting hither and thither. The horses neighed and reared. Wolves! Vasylko grabbed his horse’s mane fast, bent low and kicked the horse’s flanks with his heels hard. The horse broke into gallop. Vasylko, hatless, buffeted by the wind, rode on through the blizzard; two wolves, their gray spines bent in effort, in hot pursuit. The swirling and driving snow covered up the footprints in no time…

 

III

Having sent Vasylko off on an errand to deliver the tree, Yakym sighed with relief — the fir tree had been sold for good money, and they did need money urgently! There were things and food that had to be bought for the holidays, and his wife’s boots had to be redeemed from the pawnbroker. On the other hand, he felt sorry for Vasylko who liked that tree so much. But when there’s nothing to wear and no food in the house, then…

When he walked into the house, Olena was busy at the stove getting dinner ready to be served in time.

Nobody noticed when the snow had started to fall with an ever increasing intensity. But a little later, the sisters who moved closer to the window to play, cried out in joy,

“Snow! It’s snowing! Mother, may we go out, please?”

Yakym and Olena looked out the window, and Olena exclaimed, “Oh my God! It’s snowing hard! Poor Vasylko may be in trouble finding his way home in such a weather!”

Yakym went outside. The sky was completely covered with heavy clouds that were discharging snow, the powerful gusts of wind made it difficult to breathe. Yakym became worried, “Hope Vasylko will not get into trouble,” he thought.

When he went back in, Olena asked him, worry in her voice, “How is it outside?”

“It’s a blizzard, but let’s hope it will blow over…”

But the snowstorm did not abate. Olena kept looking out the window and going out once in a short while to check what was going on outside, and every time she heaved a worried sigh.

By the time the twilight began to turn in darkness, Vasylko had not returned.

Olena started crying. They should not have sent him to deliver that tree! There was not enough time for him to return before the night would fall! They could do without those three rubles, couldn’t they? What if they’d lose their son because of that money?

Olena couldn’t help imagining horrifying scenes — Vasylko gets lost, does not know here to go; wolves attack him and tear him, her beloved son, to pieces, and these imagined scenes of horror were breaking her heart. She was torn by guilt, tears never stopped. Yakym kept a gloomy silence, but inside he was worried as much as his wife was. He went outside from time to time, peering into the darkness, listening to the howling of the snowstorm, hoping without hope to hear Vasylko’s voice, seeing him coming at last…

In other houses of the village, people had sat down to dinner to mark Christmas Eve, but in Yakym’s house they had quite forgotten what kind of evening it was. The sisters fell asleep without having any dinner at all. Their parents were in despair, and could not think of food. A boy, the son of the neighbors, brought Yakym and Olena a dish with Christmas Eve food. Handing them the dish, wrapped in rushnyk, he said in a ringing voice, “My mother and father invite you to join them for this Christmas Eve dinner! And I ask you too to join us!” Seeing that something was wrong, the boy asked in a different voice, “And where is Vasylko?”

Olena burst into sobs. Why is it that all the people are celebrating, rejoicing, as God has willed it, at the coming of the great feast, and it is only her family that has been struck with misfortune! Her beloved child has been taken away from her, and thrown into the swirling snow to be torn to pieces by the ravening wolves!

All night long, sorrow was fluttering around the house, tearing at Yakym’s and Olena’s heart, robbing them of sleep.

 

IV

The morning was clear and full of sunshine; the sun was climbing into the cloudless sky to take a look down and see what the previous night’s storm had done to the earth. The pristine snow sparkled in silver reflections under the blue canopy of the sky. The earth had put on a beautiful white shirt for Christmas.

At the crack of dawn, Yakym went to the house next door to ask to lend him the horses so that he could go to look for Vasylko. Olena said she would go with him.

The sleigh’s runners made a cheerful sound gliding over the snow, the horses ran at a brisk trot, but they could not run real fast because the road was covered by a thick new layer of snow. But there was nothing cheerful in the hearts of Yakym and Olena. As they drove on, they glanced in every direction, looking for possible clues to Vasylko’s whereabouts. But it was only the smooth white surface of snow everywhere that met their gaze. The shining snow made their eyes hurt. When they entered the forest, Olena peered into its depths. She imagined she saw the sleigh, then Vasylko’s coat, or heard the rhythmic sound of the horses’ hooves…

“I wish we’d meet someone,” said Yakym, “probably they’d be able to tell us whether they saw anything in the forest that could be of some help in our search.”

And in a little while they did see a man in a sleigh which was pulled by one horse. They told him, a Jew, what had happened with their son, and he said he had indeed seen a broken sleigh with a fir tree on it. “Go this way and turn to the right,” he said showing the direction.

Olena began to wail loudly, “Oh my Vasylko, my son, you’re no more!” Yakym felt sick at heart.

They spotted from a distance the broken sleigh and the fir tree on it covered with snow. Yakym steered the horses towards it. Olena was the first to jump out of their sleigh and rush to the broken one. She threw herself on it, her sobbing cries echoing through the forest. Yakym stood silently by, his head hung low. He thought Vasylko must have been killed by wolves.

Then he heard the sounds that he hoped were made by an approaching sleigh vigorously pulled by horses. He wheeled around and saw his own horses coming closer and closer. He could not believe his eyes. The man in the sleigh proved to be Petro, his brother’s farm hand.

“What… How come you are here?” Yakym exclaimed in utter bewilderment.

“I was sent to look for your sleigh and take the fir tree to those who’d paid for it… Vasylko came to your brother’s place last night. He said his sleigh had gotten broken, he had lost his way but had luckily found his way to his uncle’s!”

“Vasylko’s alive!” cried out Yakym and Olena simultaneously.

“Of course he’s alive. He and Omelko went back to your house not a long time ago.

“Are you telling the truth?”

“Of course I’m telling the truth! Why would I lie to you?”

Yakym and Olena, greatly relieved, cried out in one voice, “Thank God, he is alive! Heaven be praised!”

Petro transferred the fir tree from the broken sleigh to his. Then the broken parts were loaded onto Yakym’s sleigh, and he and Olena set off on their way home. Yakym impatiently urged the horses to move faster.

When they arrived, Vasylko was already in. Yakym and Olena embraced Vasylko, weeping for joy.

“Oh Vasylko, we thought we’d never see you again,” they kept repeating over and over again.

Vasylko, happy to be back home, chattered away excitedly, telling them about his adventures in the forest.

Written in the village of Lopat,

November 1891

Art by Anatoliy Mykhailyuk

 


Mykhailo M. Kotsyubynsky, a prominent Ukrainian writer and public figure, was born in the town of Vinnytsya, Ukraine, on September 17 1864. He was educated at a religious school. In 1891 he went to the village of Lopatyntsy not far from Vinnytsya to work at the local school there. His views and position in support of Ukrainian culture and independence, made him suspicious in the eyes of the Russian Imperial police and he was put under police surveillance. In 1893 he was banned from teaching.For several years he worked as a member of folklore commission and spent some time in Bessarabia and the Crimea. In 1898 he settled in Chernihiv where he had a number of jobs but could not hold any of them for long because of poor health.M. Kotsyubynsky, who was largely an autodidact, knew several foreign languages, among them Greek, Tartar and Romany. In spite of ill health, he was very active socially and culturally, delivering lectures on literature and history, and taking part in the work of the Prosvita cultural enlightenment organization.In search of medical treatment he traveled to Austria, Switzerland and Italy. But medics failed to cure him, and he died on April 25 1913 in Chernihiv.

Mykhailo Kotsyubynsky began to regularly publish his literary works in the 1890s and never stopped until his death. Literary critics called him “a Ukrainian impressionist in literature”, and he was indeed among those Ukrainian literati who, at the end of the 19th and early 20th century, were raising Ukrainian literature to the advanced level of European literature. His works (among them one should mention Fata Morgana, Intermezzo, The Apple Blossoms, Shadows of the Forgotten Ancestors) earned him the status of “a Ukrainian classic.”

In the 1950s and 1960s several films were made based on his works, the most notable of them Shadows of the Forgotten Ancestors, which was directed by S. Parajanov, and which earned a number of international awards (in the west, it was screened as Fiery Horses).

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