A Fishery

From the hotel on the lake we proceeded to the fisheries. Leaden clouds began to lour in the sky, a sharp wind began to blow; and the willows on the banks writhed in every direction. Far off, in the lakes, as far as our eyes could see from the upper deck of the ship, the reeds were swaying. With long cries, water birds passed swiftly on the currents of air. Snow-white storks rose from the recesses of the bank, and all of a sudden the wind hit them, ruffling their long bunches of head feathers in all directions. The grebes were calling all around, in flocks, beneath the mist of the heights. The rain came swiftly, like a smoky web. It reached our boat too, in its nimble flight, enveloped us, lashed us with its sharp patter. I stood my ground wrapped in my greatcoat and gazed at the surroundings. They now looked different, I saw them as though from afar, through a sieve. Wide pools, marshes full of lianas and all kinds of grasses, loomed here and there. White cattle and horses stood in their midst, up to their haunches in water, in perfect motionlessness. "They are people's cattle," Mr Anton explained to me. "The householders set them loose in the ponds at spring, and then they spend the whole warm period in the water... They graze the marsh grasses... They roam ceaselessly. Some are unable even to lie down, because the marsh encircles them far into the distance. The mosquitoes sting them, the dampness of the swamp drains them, they live as God grants; some perish; no one knows the place where they fall and are buried in the mud, underwater... Those that survive are strong beasts... That's how the folk hereabouts raise entire herds of cattle and pigs – in the marshes... The feed costs them nothing. In autumn, they seek out their wealth, and count it, and then the dealing begins..." Those herds of cattle, in the swamp, through the smoke of the rain, were unspeakably sad in appearance. They stood with heads bowed, as though they were thinking of sunlit pastures, with flowering grasses... The boat sped on; we left them behind; and through a fine mist of water, among the wind-whipped waves of the river, we passed by a little boat, its sails lowered, which was gently floating towards Sulina... A single indistinct man stood at the helm... For an instant he loomed like a phantasm of solitude, and then was lost; and soon the siren burst forth beside me, and in the roar of waves we veered, came to a stop, and a long, black ramshackle building appeared to our sight, close by, through the rain. When we arrived in the rowing boat, we were struck by an unbearable stench of old fish. All the fishery, with all its nooks and crannies, was rain-soaked; trickles of water seeped through the roof in every part. The boards on which we trod, the planks of the jetty, all shook, leapt, and through holes and cracks Danube water gushed as though through hose pipes. And from every side, together with the water, that dense, acrid, salty smell welled up. After various gymnastic figures and balancing acts, we at last managed to stand on something solid, although there was still water swishing beneath us. A few Lipovans, with faces made harsh by rain, wind and sun, came out to us. They were bare-headed, with matted hair; their trousers were rolled up to the knees; their clothes were nothing but tatters, braided jackets smeared with scales and grease, breeches smeared with scales, grease and mud – and apart from that, rain and Danube water was streaming from the top of their heads into every last seam of their clothing. They bowed humbly to the honourable ministration. Then one of them began to yell at two lanky men who had pulled up to the jetty of the fishery with a boat full of fish. They too were wet and dirty; they too began to shout; then they tugged two osier baskets over and began to hurl the fish into them out of the boat. We entered the rickety building. Huge heaps of fish on every side. Small fry, perch and sturgeon were lying jumbled – only the carp was somehow ordered and selected according to size. By the large oak-plank counters, the cleaners were standing, with aprons that had formerly been white. With razor-sharp knives they were ripping open and gutting the fish that their helpers were pouring from the basket in front of them. They had smooth and regular movements; they gripped the fish to the left of them in the same way, they split open each fish in the same way, they made the same number of strokes, they threw it with the same movement onto another heap, and they did not budge from the spot, and nor did they look around them. A hard and continuous machine-like task. Every now and then, outside could be heard shouts; other rowing boats laden with fish were arriving, brought by men soaked to the skin... When we went outside, squeezing among the barrels of salted fish, the rain was beginning to abate. A few of the fishermen who had arrived with fish were squatting in a corner, tearing large chunks from a loaf of black bread with their teeth, then gulping brandy from a green bottle. "They don't have anywhere to make a fire," said the government inspector, "but they warm themselves up like this..." We were getting ready to board the boat, when from the bottom of the lake shouts began to be heard. The rain was ceasing; in the distance, glimmers of sunlight could be seen on the water. "That's Nechita..." said the master of the fishery, standing next to us, a short, stout Greek with ruddy cheeks. "Ah! Nechita..." said the inspector, nodding, as though he were speaking of an old acquaintance. The Greek began to laugh: "It's him... Yesterday, he brought boatloads of fish... Then he went off to celebrate..." Ever wilder yells could be heard; then a rowing boat, painted blue, appeared. Two fellows with their backs to us were rowing, bunching up their shoulders, seemingly hurling the boat down the river at every stroke... Another Lipovan sat at the rudder. And Nechita, his cap pushed back, having discarded his braided jacket and remaining in a red shirt, was throwing his arms up, yelling, and then trying to start up a kazachok, bending his middle and raising his leg... But the boat would always start to rock and prevent him. When he saw us, he stood up straight, fixing us with his gaze. His cheeks were covered in red whiskers, and from the dense beard his eyes sparkled. He suddenly started laughing and showed us his fist. Then, very gaily, he shouted something in Russian. "What is he saying?" I asked. "He says that no one will ever catch him!" said the Greek, next to me. "The devil will take you yet, Nechita!" the inspector called to him. But the Lipovan made a sign with both his head and his hands and burst out laughing. Then he straightened up and shook his fist once more, and started shouting again. "He says he's the devil of the lake, and no one can do anything to him..." The Greek shrugged and added: "That's what he's like when he's in his cups. Then the inspector comes and starts moaning and groaning... and wringing his hands... He's limitlessly sly!" "He's a big thief..." said the inspector, lowering his voice, because the Lipovans round about were listening. "I've long suspected him of clandestinely crossing over to the Russian side, because he brings foreign fishermen to the lakes from over there... Maybe he's done other things too, who knows? The pools are deep and unfrequented, and unknown... no trail remains... the dead never emerge from the mud... Between the administration and this man there is an old enmity, but up to now no one has been able to do anything... The other administration, mayor, sub-prefect, gendarme, has no existence here... No one can penetrate these wilds! And he secludes himself and commits his misdeeds without a care!" Nechita came forward grinning, with his blue boat and his red beard. The rain had stopped, but the wind was still blowing. The willow thickets shook, shedding droplets of light. Our boat continued on its way, close to the shore. Scattered fisherman's houses could be glimpsed here and there, on the raised sandbank. Next to the old, blackened trunk of a willow withy, we saw the blue boat moored, bobbing. Nechita had just disembarked and, with three Lipovans behind him, he advanced tottering towards a clay hut thatched with reeds. "That's his house..." said the inspector, "but you'll be lucky to find him there once a month... He's probably been missing his woman... and children..." The fisherman was roaring and waving his arms. And a woman, who seemed young, tall and slender, in brightly coloured cotton garments, with a yellow headscarf, hurriedly emerged from the low door of the house. She took a few steps, then the roars of Nechita seemed to stop dead. She stood unflinching, until the Lipovan came closer to her; then she raised her arms to her face and toppled onto her haunches, for the man threw himself at her, savagely felling her with his fists… Fresh smells floated over the waters, and the light had something merry about it; we rounded a screen of willows; and the house, where the man had come after many weeks to see his wife and children, vanished... "That's his second wife..." said one of the men on duty, after a while. I wanted to ask what had happened to the first, perhaps just as sprightly and slender as the second, but I knew that at my question the man would shrug. I remained thinking about what was happening back there on the sandbank, in the light of the sun – and all the while swamps full of darkness and silence opened up on either side, after the screen of willows, as the ship sped on.

by Mihail Sadoveanu (1880-1961)