Another night. A dark, still night. Far off, in a half circle, the lights of the shore. A very still night indeed. I stand there a long time, listening into the silence. I keep thinking I can hear the sound of a church bell from the dark shore. Maybe I really can . . . I don’t know how far we are from the shore. All I can see are the lights.
‘Yes,’ says someone nearby, ‘it’s a church bell. The sound carries well over water.’
‘That’s right,’ says someone else. ‘It’s the night before Easter.’ Holy Saturday. We have all lost our sense of time. We have no idea where we are either in time or in space. Holy Saturday. This distant ringing that has come to us over the waves of the sea is solemn, dense, and hushed to the point of mystery. As if it has been searching for us, lost as we are in the sea and the night, and has found us, and has united us with this church on the earth, now bathed in light, in singing, in praise of the resurrection.
This sound I have known all my life, this solemn sound of the Holy Eve, takes hold of my soul and leads it far away, past the screams and the bloodshed, to the simple, sweet days of my childhood.
My little sister Lena . . . She was always by my side – we grew up together. A round rosy cheek, and a round gray eye, were always there at my shoulder.
When we argued, she would hit me with her tiny fist, soft as a rubber ball. Then, horrified by her own wild violence, she would weep as she repeated again and again: ‘I could kill you!’
She was a crybaby. When I wanted to draw her portrait (when I was five, art was something for which I felt a real love – a love that my elders eventually managed to kill), I always began by drawing a round open mouth and filling it in with black. Only after that would I add her eyes, nose, and cheeks. These, as I saw it, were mere extras, of no significance – what mattered was this open mouth that so perfectly captured the very essence of my model’s physical and spiritual being.
Lena liked to draw too. She always did what I did. When I was sick and had to take medicine, she too had to have a few drops in a glass of water.
‘Well, Lenushka, feeling better now?’
‘Yes, thank God, I seem to be a little better,’ she would say with a sigh.
Lena, like me, liked to draw, but she set about it very differently. She often drew Nanny, and she always began, very carefully, by drawing four parallel lines.
‘What’s that?’ ‘It’s the wrinkles on Nanny’s forehead.’ Two or three more quick strokes – and there was Nanny, now complete. But getting those first wrinkles right was difficult and Lena would huff and puff and spoil sheet after sheet of paper.
Lena was indeed a crybaby. I remember one terrible, shameful incident. I had already been going to the gymnasium for a whole year when Lena started there too. She was in the junior preparatory class. And then one day our whole class was lined up on the stairs waiting to go down into the entrance hall. The little ones from the preparatory class had gone down already. And then I saw a little figure with a clipped tuft of hair on its forehead, dragging a heavy bag of books, fearfully trying to edge its way along beside the wall but not daring to go past us.
Lena! Our class mistress went up to her: ‘What is your surname? Which class are you in?’
Lena looked up at her with an expression of animal terror, and her lower lip began to tremble. Without answering, she hunched her shoulders, snatched up her bag, and, her tuft of hair shaking as she burst into loud sobs, rushed down the stairs – a small bundle of misery.
‘What a funny little girl!’ said our mistress, and began to laugh.
This was more than I could bear. I closed my eyes and hid behind a friend’s back. The shame of it! What if the class mistress found out that she was my sister? A sister who, instead of saying straightforwardly and with dignity, ‘I’m from the junior preparatory class’ and then bobbing a curtsy, simply began to howl. The shame of it!
. . . The sound of Easter. Now I can hear the bell quite clearly . . .
I remember how, in our old house – in the half-dark of the hall, where the chandeliers’ crystal drops used to tremble and tinkle of their own accord – Lena and I would stand side by side, looking out into the night and listening to the bells. We were a little scared – because we were alone, because the bells sounded unusually solemn, and because Christ would soon be risen.
‘But why,’ asked Lena, ‘why isn’t it angels ringing the bells?’
In the half dark I could see a little gray eye – shining and frightened.
‘Angels only come,’ I replied, ‘when it’s your last hour.’ And I felt scared by my own words. . . .
Why now? Why, on this Easter Eve, has my sister come thousands of miles, to this dark sea? Why does she stand beside me as a little girl – the little girl she was when I loved her most of all.
I don’t know.
Only three years later will I find out that on this very night, thousands of miles away in Arkhangelsk, my Lena was dying.
We sailed into Novorossiisk. What an enormous port!
Jetty after jetty, one after another.
Cranes towered everywhere, like the necks of gigantic black waterbirds. And endless sheds, depots, warehouses . . .
And people, crowds of people, all over the waterfront and the landing stages.
At first I thought they were passengers waiting for a steamer. But, after walking about a little, I soon saw that they weren’t waiting there – they were living there. They had rigged up tents out of baskets and pieces of cloth, hung up their ragged things – and there they now lived.
There were old women roasting scraps of food on braziers.
And there were half-naked children playing with mutton bones and bits of broken bottles. Swarthy children with tousled black hair. In front of each tent stood a pole, and tied to this pole was a cluster or garland of garlic. These people were Armenian refugees. They had been in Novorossiisk for a long time and had no idea where they would be sent next. There had been an outbreak of typhus in the city and many of them were sick. Children were dying of fever. The clusters of garlic were there to ward off infection. Ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and a variety of diseases all strongly dislike the smell of garlic. As do I myself; I entirely understand these ghosts, vampires and werewolves.
These refugees were leading a strange life.
They had been driven here from one place, and they would soon be driven on to some other place. And though all they owned in the world might be a few rags and a frying pan, they seemed to be finding their lives quite tolerable. I sensed neither despondency nor even impatience.
They bickered, laughed, wandered through the camp to visit one another, and smacked their children. Some were even selling dried fish and pressed mutton.
A boy was blowing on a clay whistle and two little girls were dancing, their arms around each other.
No one grumbled, worried, or asked too many questions. They accepted their present life as something quite normal.
I saw one woman in a torn dress made from silk – not long ago she must have been rich. She was showing her neighbour how she’d stretched a shawl over a rope. She was very pleased with herself. And if the shawl had been a quarter – yes, just one quarter – as long again (she demonstrated several times with her palm how much more material she needed), then she could have completed their tent.
She was just that quarter of a shawl away from total comfort.
It’s true, everything is relative. Her neighbor could not help feeling envy – she herself had only a garland of garlic with which to protect her home from vampires, disease, and prying eyes.
I went on into the city, where passengers from the Shilka were already wandering about in unshepherded flocks, looking for people they knew and finding out about rooms, prices and – most important of all – the Bolsheviks.
It was here that we first heard about the ‘Greens.’
The Greens were new, and a little hard to understand. Where had this new color come from? Had it emerged from the Whites or the Reds?
‘They’re over there,’ people would say, gesturing toward the tall white mountains to the right of the harbor. ‘Beyond Gelendzhik.’
‘They live and let live . . .’
What kind of lives were they living there? Why were they hiding, and who from?
‘Even White officers are going over to them.’
Dismal gray groups of passengers from the Shilka hung about at street corners and crossroads, talking dismal nonsense.
‘Well, gentlemen,’ said a deep businesslike voice, ‘it’s clear as daylight. We must go to Trebizond.’
‘Yes, gentlemen, Trebizond. Apparently butter is very cheap there.’
‘Don’t be so stupid. The Bolsheviks will be gone within a week, two at most, and it’ll be quicker to get back home from here in Novorossiisk.’
But the butter lover was intransigent.
‘Excellent,’ he said. ‘Let’s say they will be gone in two weeks. But isn’t it better to find a way to enjoy those two weeks? And we’ll find it hard to do that here in Novorossiisk.’
‘What with the journey, what with this and that, we’ll barely have time to spread your cheap butter over a slice of bread before we have to make our way back here again.’
‘Well, what do you think we should do?’
Other groups were talking about the typhus epidemic. Apparently the whole city was in a state of terror. People were dropping like flies.
The pharmacies were selling all kinds of patented remedies, ointments, liquids, and even amulets, to ward off infection.
People said we should tie the ends of our sleeves tightly around our wrists to prevent anything from crawling up our arms.
The general mood of the city was indeed dismal.
Photograph © Finnish National Gallery
The above is an excerpt from Memories – From Moscow to the Black Sea, Teffi’s account of her last journey across Russia and Ukraine, at the time of the civil war, before sailing to Constantinople in summer 1919. Memories is translated by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler, Anne Marie Jackson and Irina Steinberg, and is published by Pushkin Press in the UK and NYRB Classics in the US. It will be Radio 4 Book of the Week, 16-20 May.