A Worried Man

It had been three days since the wind had been blowing from the east, the earth had dried up, and in the thicket from the edge of the village, on the bank of Siret, the cornel trees started to bloom, yellowish. Dumitru Onisor's youngest son took out six sheep to graze at the fresh sprouts of spring.He was a pale and small child daggling the heavy boots of an elder brother through the wet ground. He raised towards me his sad eyes, as if enveloped in a grey shadow, and took off with difficulty his old hat, flattened like a mushroom. He greeted me in a soft voice in which an ailment already settled in seemed to sound; then, covering his head, he lifted his small white cane above the sheep, herding them to the thicket."How are you, young man?" I asked him. "Are you taking the sheep to graze?""My dad sent me with them!" he answered seriously, in his high-pitched, lisping voice, and he stopped.The sheep stopped as well and turned their heads towards their shepherd."But are you good enough, Niculaies, my boy, to shepherd a flock of sheep?""Well, I am good enough; but now I don't have much to shepherd; I am upset…""How come? And, pray, why is that?""Why?" he asked me lifting towards me his forehead on which his messy hair fell in an irregular fringe; "because our sheep kept dying this spring; and now we only have these six left…"Although the "young man" I was talking to was very short, although he had just turned eight, his sorrow was deep and serious; my smile vanished at once."And have many of them died, Niculaies, my boy?""Many…" he answered seriously, leaning on the cane in front of me, like shepherds. "My father keeps swearing and cursing when a sheep dies; sometimes he even beats me; but am I guilty? Now, today, another thing happened to me. When I was getting out of the village, one passed quickly with the cart and hit a sheep. He knocked it down. Now it barely moves and it barely breathes. It will die, this one too. It was mother's and she left it to me…"His voice suddenly fell in a wobbling of tears."And do you know the man that hit your sheep?""He's not from our village, I don't know him.""Why didn't you go back quickly to tell your father?""My dad's not at home; he went out to plough with the other men.""And why do you say that your mom had left it to you?""Well, don't you know? I haven't got a mother. She died in the fasting period before Christmas and left us alone. Now I have nobody to wash me, to take care of me… I have no one to comfort me… one day she was sick, she lay on the bed and died on a Sunday. And before that, she caressed my forehead and told me she was leaving this ewe to me…"The small child was talking to me seriously and aggrieved, like a grown-up. I wished I could have comforted him somehow, but I couldn't think of anything I could tell a child. And a caress with the hand on his forehead covered with messy hair, was not a comfort for this man. Seeing that I remain silent, he looked at me carefully. Certainly he was not expecting any comfort or caress from me."Well then, I'll go with my sheep…" he told me decidedly.And moving on, he started daggling his heavy boots again, guiding the sheep with the white cane towards the thicket on the Siret valley.I started walking along with him, on the freshly dried up path. The sky was clear, the sun was filling the fields with light, and from time to time you could see the Siret flickering at turns."Look, this is the sheep that was hit…" Niculaies told me touching with the cane the ewe that was trotting slowly, limping, behind the little flock. "Well, then, if it dies too, my dad will really have a reason to hit and scold me… as if the trouble that I have was not enough…"He sniffed and passed the long sleeve of his coat over his lips. Then he sighed deeply."Why are you sighing, Niculaies?"The child did not answer such an obvious question."When my mom was sick, he said in the end, I, the youngest one, sat by her, to give her water when she was thirsty… she had high fever. We were alone; the others were outside, with work. And she was telling me to be good after she was gone and to listen to my dad. And I was asking her: where are you going mummy? And she used to tell me: Well, I will die, Niculaies, and you mustn't tell anybody… I did not tell, but my daddy knew it and he was upset and he kept slamming and hitting things and he asked: and how much longer will you keep on being sick, woman?..."The child was talking softly with his aggrieved voice and was not looking at me; he seemed not to be talking to me and to be holding council with his sheep, as always."And you, why are you trotting so softly?" he asked his ewe, "…it hurts, doesn't it? He knocked you down and hit you, that evil man… well if I were at least like brother Mihai, I would have grabbed him and shaken him: Look here, how dare you hit my sheep?... come slowly, and you'll have a rest in the thicket…""Don't worry, Niculaies, it won't die…" I told him.He startled and quickly turned his head towards me. Then he was quiet until we reached the bank of the water. There we found the hazel nut and the cornel trees in bloom. The purple violas were coming out through the dead leaves; the tomtits and the chaffinches were singing among birch buds. The Siret was coming whirling, big and turbid, and flowed under the thicket as if bearing a sorrow. Onisor's boy stood there looking at it, while the sheep, scattered around him, were nibbling with their moving muzzles at the short grass."Look, the storks…" he said suddenly in such a voice as if addressing his companions.Off the bank, in a slop, storks with orange beaks were stalking. Then, a flock of ducks whizzed over the thicket. Two white seagulls came from up the river, slowly flapping their pointed wings. In the thicket full of light, I suddenly saw red butterflies flying, and in the solitude that enveloped us, there was something soft and sweet, like in a childhood fairytale.I left Niculaies, son of Onisor, alone in the silence of the bank and started off down the river, towards places that reminded me of the years past. But the image of the child would not vanish from my mind's eye and his sad voice kept sounding in my ear. I spent my school years together with his mother, Irina, daughter of Avram, and I remembered, most of all, her eyes, wrapped as in a grey veil: the child had the same eyes. She used to be a lively and impetuous girl, a very beautiful and good girl. Dumitru Onisor won all her charms, and he was a fine householder, but he was morose and stingy. Now, our Irina of the old had died; the child's story reminded me of all the beautiful things of old, things forever lost. She had died, passing on her warm soul and her vivid imagination to the child – who was now sitting under the birch trees, talking to his sheep.Her grave, like anybody else's grave in our sad graveyards, had no mark, and no flower on it. Onisor was carelessly plowing his land, worrying only about tomorrow's cornfield. The memory of our Irina lived only in the pale child. Her gentleness, her wisdom and what were the dreams in her heart, seemed to have passed on to my little companion, in those lonely evenings of suffering, when they were both conferring with tears in their eyes, and the blizzards of winter loomed outside, with tormented wailings.From a place, high up the bank, I turned around as if I had been called by someone and I looked behind. The child was sitting under the birch trees and I seemed to see him unclearly as in a luminous mist. The sheep were grazing around him. The tomtits sang in high pitched verse their eternal words of joy: I feel the summer, I feel the summer! And, most certainly, as always, Niculaies was speaking to his sheep. And now he was asking the ailing ewe:"How are you? Does it still hurt?"The sheep answered him bleating softly and sweetly."Don't die, for you're all I have left from my mother…" he was saying softly.The storks were clacking in the slop over the water. He looked at them attentively. A tomtit flew above his head which was covered with the flattened hat, and kept squeaking his song."You are happy and carefree…" he whispered to him, in admonition. And he sighed as the worried man full of sorrows that he was…When it got late, as I returned, I found him brightened up, because his ewe had livened up. With a blade, he was trying to make himself a whistle from an osier willow branch. And when he rose, smiling, his eyes towards me – a memory struck me suddenly, a memory that appeared as from a mist, and a striking resemblance with the eyes and the smile of the one who, years ago, flowered like a flower and charmed with a smile and with a furtive look, a fleeting hour of my life. 1920

by Mihail Sadoveanu (1880-1961)