Sunday, June 22, 2008

Chapter 1, Part 1

The year 1647 was that strange year in which various signs in the heavens and on earth announced misfortunes of some kind and unusual events.
Contemporary chroniclers relate that beginning with the spring myriads of locusts swarmed from the Wild Lands, destroying grain and grass; this was a harbinger of Tartar raids. In the summer there was a great eclipse of the sun, and soon after a comet appeared in the sky. In Warsaw, grave-mounds were seen over the city, and a fiery cross was seen in the clouds; therefore, fasts were held and alms given, for some men declared that a plague would come over the land and destroy the human race. Finally, a winter so mild set in that the oldest inhabitants could not remember one like it. In the southern provinces ice did not confine the rivers, which, swollen by the morning melting of snows, left their courses and flooded the banks. Rainfalls were frequent. The steppe was drenched and became an immense slough. The sun was so warm in the south that--wonder of wonders!--in the province of Braclaw and in the Wild Lands a green fleece covered the steppes and plains in the middle of December. The swarms in the beehives began to buzz and bustle; cattle were bellowing in the fields. Since such an order of things appeared altogether unnatural, all men in Rus who were waiting or looking for unusual events turned their excited minds and eyes especially to the Wild Lands, from which danger might easier show itself than anywhere else.

At that time there was nothing unusual in the Wild Lands--no struggles there, nor encounters, beyond those of ordinary occurrence and known only to the eagles, hawks, ravens, and beasts of the plain.

For such were the Wild Lands at that period. The last traces of settled life ended on the way to the south, at no great distance beyond Chigirin on the side of the Dnieper, and on the side of the Dniester not far from Uman; then forward to the bays and sea there was nothing but steppe after steppe, hemmed in by the two rivers as if by a frame. At the bend of the Dnieper in the lower country beyond the Cataracts, Cossack life was seething, but in the open plains no man dwelt; only along the shores were nestled here and there little fields, like islands in the sea. The land belonged de nomine to the Commonwealth, but it was an empty land, in which the Commonwealth permitted the Tartars to graze their herds; but since the Cossacks prevented this frequently, the field of pasture was a field of battle, too.

How many struggles were fought in that region, how many people had laid down their lives there, no man had counted, no man remembered. Eagles, falcons, and ravens alone saw these; and whoever heard from a distance the sound of wings and the call of ravens, whoever beheld the whirl of birds circling over one place, knew that corpses or unburied bones were lying beneath. Men were hunted in the grass as if they were wolves or wild goats. All who wished, engaged in this hunt. Fugitives form the law defended themselves in the wild steppes. The armed herdsman guarded his flock, the warrior sought adventure, the robber plunder, the Cossack a Tartar, the Tartar a Cossack. It happened that whole bands guarded herds from troops of robbers. The steppe was both empty and filled, quiet and terrible, peaceable and full of ambushes; wild by reason of its wild plains, but wild, too, from the wild spirit of men.

At times a great war filled it. Then there flowed over it, like waves, Tartar chambuls, Cossack regiments, Polish or Wallachian companies. In the nighttime the neighing of horses answered the howling of wolves, the voices of drums and brazen trumpets flew on to the island of Ovid and the sea, and along the black trail of Kutchman there seemed an inundation of men. The boundaries of the Commonwealth were guarded from Kamenyets to the Dnieper by outposts and stanitsas; and when the roads were about to swarm with people, it was known especially by the countless flocks of birds which, frightened by the Tartars, flew onward to the north. But the Tartar, if he slipped out form the Black Forest or crossed the Dnieper from the Wallachian side, came by the southern provinces together with the birds.

That winter, however, the birds did not come with their uproar to the Commonwealth. It was stiller on the steppe than usual. At the moment when our narrative begins the sun was just setting, and its reddish rays threw light on a land entirely empty. On the northern rim of the Wild Lands, along the Omelnik to its mouth, the sharpest eye could not discover a living soul, nor even a movement in the dark, dry, and withered steppe grass. The sun showed but half its shield from behind the horizon. The heavens became obscured, and then the steppe grew darker and darker by degrees. Near the left bank, on a small height resembling more a grave-mound than a hill, were the mere remnants of a walled outpost which once upon a time had been built by Teodoryk Buczacki and then torn down by raids. A long shadow stretched from this ruin. In the distance gleamed the waters of the widespread Omelnik, which in that place turned toward the Dnieper. But the lights went out each moment in the heavens and on the earth. From the sky were heard the cries of storks in their flight to the sea; with this exception, the stillness was unbroken by a sound.

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