Death and the Hero

ALEXANDER TVARDOVSKY, born in 1910, is known throughout Russia for his three long poems, THE LAND MURAVEI, which established his reputation; VASILY TYORKIN, a memorial to the Russian soldier in World War II; and SPACE ON SPACE. He is today the editor of the leading Soviet literary periodical, NOVY MIR.

From beyond a distant hillock
Came the battle’s din and glow,
But our friend Vasily Tyorkin
Lay alone upon the snow.
And the snow was stained with scarlet
Where the wounded hero lay
Death came stealing like a harlot:
“Come on, soldier, come away.
“It is time that you were going —
Let me lead you through the gale,
Blizzard blowing, blizzard blowing,
Blowing snow across our trail.”
Tyorkin started as he lay there,
Scarcely breathing in the snow:
“Who invited you, you hussy?
I’m alive. I will not go.”
Death detected some misgiving:
“It’s no matter how you strive —
You cannot be counted living
Just because you are alive.
“I have touched you with my shadow;
Even now you are too weak
To be conscious that the snowflakes
Lie unmelting on your cheek.
“Do not fear the dark before you —
Night is just as good as day.”
“That’s all right, but what, you whore, you,
Would you like to have me say?”
This remark, so unexpected,
Disconcerted her a bit:
“What I’m asking,” Death reflected,
“Is a trifle, you’ll admit.
“Just a sign that you are willing
To submit to my demands,
That you’re sick and tired of living —”
“In a word, throw up my hands?”
Death considered, drawing nearer;
“Well, why not? I’ll take the blame.”
“Nothing doing, Life is dearer.”
“Silly boy, it’s all the same.
If you want it or you don’t,
All the same your hands are blue,
All the same your sight is failing,
Lips are paling —”
“Go away!”
“See how quickly night is falling,
Why prolong your misery?
That’s the reason I am calling —
Get it over — come with me.”
“I will stay.” “Don’t be foolish — you are freezing.
You will not survive the storm.
Let me wrap you in my blanket
And forever keep you warm.
You believe me. You are crying.
Your submission makes me bold.”
“Don’t you trap me with your lying!
I am crying from the cold!”
“Tears of joy and tears of pain —
All the same! On the plain
Night is swiftly drawing near;
They will never find you here.
And even if they found you,
Would your happiness increase?
Once again your cares would hound you —
Better lie and die in peace.”
“You are trying to ensnare me.”
Tyorkin’s jaw was firmly set.
“I must live. You cannot scare me.
I have hardly lived as yet.”
“If you live — what then? What of it?”
She was bending to his ear.
“If you do, you think you’ll love it?
Love the cold, the dirt, the fear?
Life is not a bed of roses,
Think of everything once more —”
“Think of what? It’s all familiar.
You forget that this is war.”
“Once again you’ll have the worry
About homefolks, about home —”
“That’s the reason I must hurry,
Kill off Jerry and get home.”
“Home. Perhaps. If home were waiting,
If your home were still intact.
But except for bricks and grating,
All is ashes — that’s a fact.
All in ruins —”
“I can build it,
I know how, and I am strong.”
“The land is wasted.”
“Once I tilled it.”
“Pipes are twisted.”
“Not for long.
“ ‘Jack of all trades’ — so they called me.
Once I’m back, I’ll mend the harm.”
“You will, unless — don’t interrupt me —
You will, unless you lose an arm,
Or in general are disabled —”
Tyorkin drew a sudden breath.
Was there nothing that enabled
Man to triumph over Death?
He was ready for submission —
Worn and weary, night at hand —
“Listen, Death, on one condition,
I’ll transfer to your command.”
And the boy, where he lay bleeding,
So alone, so young, so weak,
Started quietly to speak,
In a tone of earnest pleading:
“I’m no better than the others,
I can die as well as they,
But when all the fighting’s over,
Will you free me for a day?
So that I may be in Moscow
For the victory salute?
So that I may hear the salvo
That the Moscow guns will shoot?
While the rockets still are flaring,
May I hurry home to see
How the village folks are faring?
They will be expecting me.
And when friends come out to meet me
At some old familiar spot,
May I answer those who greet me
With a word?”
“You may not.”
Tyorkin shuddered as he lay there,
Yet some strength seemed to revive.
“Get away from me and stay there,
I’m a soldier still alive!
“I will yell until I’m blue,
I may perish on this hill,
But I’ll never yield to you
Of my own free will!” “Take it easy. By succumbing
You will only prove the rule —”
“Stop! They’re searching! Someone’s coming!
It’s the medics!”
“Where, you fool?”
“There!” His eyes were shining.
Death went weak with laughter then:
“That’s the squad that comes to bury!”
“Just the same, they’re living men!”
One came over, then another,
With a crowbar and a spade.
“Here’s another stiff to cover.
We won’t finish, I’m afraid.”
“Have a seat upon this body.
All my bones, I think, are broke.”
“If we can’t fill up our bellies,
We at least can have a smoke.”
“How’d you like a sup of something —
Cabbage soup with cream on top?”
“How’d you like a sip of something?”
“I’d be willing—just a drop.”
“Maybe two —”
Suddenly they seemed to hear
Someone say, just audibly:
“Drive this Jane away from here!
I’m alive, as you can see.”
Up they jumped from off Vasily,
Had a look — alive all right!
“Can you beat it?”
“Now we really
Must get back before the night.”
“Just to think of him surviving!
Quite a marvel, on the whole!
Not so strange to find a body,
But a body with a soul!”
“Once his soul is whole —come on!
Got to give the guy a hand.
We had almost passed him on
To the Ministry of Land.”
“Get your spade without delaying,
He is frozen to the spot.
Chop his coat off.”
Death was saying:
“I will follow. Like as not
They will jerk him or will drop him,
And I’ll have him back again.
Some new accident may slop him
From escaping with those men.”
Both their spades and both their belts,
Both their coats laid end to end —
“Come on, soldier, lift the soldier.”
“Off we go! Have patience, friend.”
Slowly, carefully they bore him,
Trying hard to ease the ride.
He looked happily before him;
Death kept trailing to one side.
What a road they had to cover!
Ruts and rocks and drifts of snow —
“Why not rest a little, brother?”
“That’s all right. We’d better go.
Night is coming. Don’t you bother
About us,” the soldier said.
“You can bet we’d ten times rather
Lug a live one than a dead.”
And the other said: “That’s right.
And besides, it’s understood,
That a live one must keep going,
While a dead one’s home for good.”
Now it seemed the wind was easing;
Less relentless grew the storm.
“Lost your gloves? Your hands are freezing.
Here, take mine, they’re nice and warm.”
As she listened, Death kept thinking:
“What a friendly lot they are!”
All her hopes were quickly sinking
“There’s no sense in going far.
I can see they’ll never let him
Go away with me today.
It’s a pity not to get him —”
And she sighed and turned away.

Translated by Margaret Wettlin.