Petersburg The Cranes

Nikolai Apollonovich wanted to return to his motherland, the nursery, because he had realized: he was a small child.

Everything, everything must be shaken off, forgotten, everything, everything must be learned again, as it is learned in childhood; his old, forgotten motherland – he could hear it now. And – above everything suddenly rang out the voice of his lonely and yet beloved childhood, a voice that had not sounded for a long time; and had sounded – now.

The sound of that voice?

It is as indistinct as the call of the cranes above the city; the cranes flying high up there – in the city’s rumble the city-dwellers cannot hear them; but they fly, fly past above the city – the cranes! … Somewhere, on Nevsky Prospect, let us suppose, in the quiver of the flying carriages and the uproar of the newspaper-sellers, where above it all perhaps only the throat of the motor car rises – among those metal throats, at a pre-vesperal, vernal hour, on the paving the dweller of the woodless plains, who has landed in the city by chance, will arise as though rooted to the spot; he will stop – lean his shaggy, bearded head to one side, and stop you.

‘Shhh! …’

‘What is it?’

And he, the dweller of the woodless plains, who has landed in the city by chance, will to your amazement shake his head and smile a cunning, cunning smile:

‘Can’t you hear them?’

‘? …’

‘Listen …’

‘What? What is it?’

And he will sigh:

‘There … the cranes … are calling.’

You also listen.

At first you will hear nothing; and then, from somewhere up above, in the spaces you will hear: a familiar, forgotten sound – a strange sound …

There the cranes are calling.

You both raise your heads. A third, a fifth, a tenth person raises his head.

At first the universal spaces dazzle you all; nothing, apart from air … And yet – no: there is something apart from air …, because amidst all that blue there clearly emerges – something that is none the less familiar: northwards … fly … the cranes!

Around you there is an entire ring of inquisitive people; they all have their heads raised, and the pavement is blocked; a policeman makes his way through; and yet – no: he cannot restrain his curiosity; has stopped, thrown back his head; he is looking.

And a murmur:

‘The cranes! …’

‘They’re coming back again …’

‘Dear creatures …’

Above the accursed Petersburg roofs, above the boarded roadway, above the crowd – that pre-vernal image, that familiar voice!

So also – the voice of childhood!

It is not audible; yet it – exists; from time to time the calling of the cranes above the Petersburg roofs – will be heard! Thus the voice of childhood.

It was something of this kind that Nikolai Apollonovich heard now.

As though someone sad, whom Nikolai Apollonovich had never seen before, had outlined around his soul a solid, penetrating circle and had entered his soul; the bright light of his eyes began to transpierce his soul. Nikolai Apollonovich gave a start; something rang out, that had been compressed within his soul; now it receded lightly into immensity; yes, here was immensity, saying dauntlessly:

‘You all persecute me! …’

‘What? What? What?’ Nikolai Apollonovich said, trying to make out that voice; and the immensity said dauntlessly:

‘I look after you all …’

Thus did it speak.

Nikolai Apollonovich cast his eyes over space in astonishment, as though he expected to see before him the owner of the singing voice; but what he saw was something else; namely: he saw a dense, floating mass – of bowler hats, moustaches, chins; walked further – simply the misty prospect; and in it floated his gaze, as everything floated now.

The misty prospect seemed familiar and kindly; ai-ai-ai – how sad the misty prospect seemed; and the flood of bowler hats with its faces? All these faces that were passing here – passed reflective, unutterably sad.

But the voice’s owner was not there.

Only who was that there? There, on that side? Outside that colossus of a house, over there? And – under a pile of balconies?

Yes, someone was standing there.

Just like him, Nikolai Apollonovich; and standing, like him, outside a shop window – under an open umbrella … And not conspicuous: he might possibly be looking at something … so it might seem; impossible to make out his face. And what was so special about him? On this side stood Nikolai Apollonovich, not particularly remarkable, for his own satisfaction … Well, and the other man, too, was not conspicuous: like Nikolai Apollonovich, like all the other people who were passing – just a casual passer-by; and he too was sad and kindly (as everyone was kindly now); looked about him with an independent air: as if to say, so what, there’s nothing special about me: I’ve got a few whiskers on my face, too! … No – he was clean-shaven … The outline of his little overcoat recalled, but … what? Was he nodding? …

Simply wearing some sort of little peaked cap.

And where had it happened before?

Should he approach him, the kindly owner of the peaked cap? After all, it was a public prospect; well, truly! There was room for everyone on this public prospect … Simply, in an unconspicuous manner – approach: look at the objects that were there … behind glass on the other side of the shop window. For everyone had a right …

Stand independently there beside him, and when an opportunity arose cast a fleeting glance, a glance that was dissembling – apparently absent-minded, but in fact attentive, –

– at him!

Make sure: as if to say: what is this?

No, no, no! … Touch the doubtless ossifying fingers, and weep with stupid happiness! …

Fall down prostrate on the paving!

‘I am sick, deaf, heavy laden … Give me rest, Master, give me shelter …’

And hear in reply:

‘Arise …

‘Go …

‘Sin no more …’

No, of course there would be no reply.

But of course – the sad figure would not reply, because there could be no replies for the present; the reply would come later – in an hour, in one year, or five, or perhaps even more – in a hundred, in a thousand years; but a reply there would be! But now the sad, tall figure, never seen in dreams, but absolutely no more than a stranger, but a stranger with a hidden purpose, and, so to speak, a mysterious stranger – the sad, tall figure would simply look at him and put a finger to his lips. Without looking, without stopping, he would walk there through the slush …

And in the slush disappear …

But a day would come.

All this would alter in the twinkling of an eye. And all the passing strangers – those who had passed before one another (in a backstreet somewhere) at a moment of mortal danger, those who spoke of that inexpressible moment with an inexpressible look and then withdrew into immensity – they would all, all meet!

No one would take the joy of that meeting away from them.