Part I Old
MAN VS. BEAST
In the summer, in Latvia, when I was just a boy, I’d wake up with
glorious morning sunlight streaming through my little window. Robert’s
bed, next to mine, was already empty. Swinging my legs out of bed, I’d
run through the living room and kitchen and out the door. The grass was
covered with dew—it looked like silver, and each drop shone like
a newly minted kopek where the sun hit. How grand to be alive! If I got
up soon enough, like five o’clock, I ran over to the barn to see
the cows being milked. Father would squirt warm milk straight into my
mouth. He was a good shot, but if I moved as much as a centimeter the
milk went all over my pajamas. I didn’t mind. The taste of that
first milk in the morning has stayed with me all my life. And now to play!
So much to do—dam the creek, wander in the woods looking for mushrooms,
check out the sparrow nest, collect a bouquet of flax flowers, fragile
and beautiful, to take to Mother; and later, when the sun dried out the
dew, to lie on a soft bed of straw and let my eyes make up pictures on
the endless blue sky.
I had enough to occupy me for years to come—a boy’s life is
a busy one. Nobody really understood that—well, maybe Uncle Janis
did. He liked to play with wood and to make the little windmills that
turned in the breeze and went clackety-clack. My parents always had their
noses into some kind of work; it was like they were sleepwalking. Mowing
the hay, digging ponds, sharpening tools, making cloth out of flax, cooking
and cleaning, cooking and cleaning, and church on Sundays. I don’t
think they knew how to have fun.
Maybe they just needed someone to take over some of the chores. I didn’t
see that back then. I just thought they wanted to make me like them, just
one more sleepwalker. One fine day—I must have been six or so—Father
announced: “Peteris, you are now old enough to take care of the
pigs. I am making you the official pig tender.” He sweetens the
pill with an official label! Does he really believe I buy that?
Yet pigs wander off, and little Peteris was now the one in charge of pigs.
Father’s word was final. He wasn’t about to budge. After breakfast,
Mother opened the pen and I herded them off to the field. She pointed
her finger to the western sky: “Peter, this is how low the sun has
to be before you bring back the pigs.” So off I went, attached to
half a dozen pigs, each with his own opinion about where to go. They had
to be taken out so they could forage, I guess, and air out their filthy
hides. The neighborhood bully—their farm was right next to ours—would
call me a swinekeeper whenever I was within earshot. I called him a few
choice names too, but that didn’t really help. I hated the neighbor
almost as much as the pigs. We could at least have owned long-snouted,
black pigs like the rich people down the road, but ours were all white
pigs with short snouts. They smelled bad, I slipped on their turds, and
they were a bunch of fast devils. I had to pay attention all the time,
and when I daydreamed, which happened often, the pigs went every which
way. I got to know them quite well. I even gave them names. One sow, especially
stubborn and fast, made my life hell. To get even, I called her “spingle-duchka,”
a choice name I invented myself.
One time I drove them to the far end of the farm, next to where the woods
got thick. It was a lovely day, the sky so blue it hurt, one of those
days definitely not to be wasted on work. I started daydreaming and maybe
even fell asleep for a little while, and when I looked up again the place
was deserted. Not a pig in sight. Ah, the wages of sin! What now? Even
if I found them, how could I herd them, one of me against the six of them,
now that they had tasted freedom? Going back to the house totally pigless
was an option I couldn’t contemplate. I must have made quite a racket,
running around in circles, shouting after the pigs, because out of the
woods emerged the neighbor’s hired shepherd with his dog. He was
the nice shepherd, not the mean brute they hired later. Fortunately, between
the two of us we located the pigs and drove them back into the open field,
and I got to live another day.
But, to be honest, with all my tears and bawling I hardly ever worked
more than half a day out in the field. I would play dumb. Mid-afternoon,
I would drive them close to home and yell at the top of my lungs, “Mu-u-um,
I am tired, I am driving the dirty critters home.” I yelled until
I was hoarse, sometimes with tears running down my cheeks. Eventually
Mother emerged from the kitchen door: “Why are you bellowing like
a bull! Come home already!” Not waiting to be asked twice, I would
yell at the pigs, “No! No! No!,” which was the signal for
them to get back to their pen where Mother had filled the troughs with
kitchen scraps and boiled potatoes and turnips. When the gate slammed
behind the last pig, my fatigue suddenly vanished, and I was gone like
lightning, not to be seen until dark.
The next pox on my childhood were sheep and cows. In a year I was “promoted”
to shepherd, in my mind a position barely above swineherding. You’d
think Father would have recognized my native ability by letting me run
the plow, like Robert. But no, he put me in charge of our two dozen heads
of domestic cattle—milk cows, sheep, and several calves. In the
beginning, Grandmother helped me, but then she took sick and died. I spent
interminable days alone with the animals, after that.
The sheep fed in the pasture bordering the neighbor’s field. The
pasture had no trees or shade. My favorite occupation, napping in the
summer sun, was out of the question because of the flies. We had large
flies, almost the size of a bumblebee. They never really got to suck any
blood from us, because no living thing could ignore their bite, but their
vain efforts made my life hell. Sometimes, Robert and I caught a fly and
punctured its blood sack with a thorn and let it fly off, to trouble us
no more. When the cattle were attacked, they went into panic. They would
run in all different directions, flailing their tails. A young cow with
a white spot on her forehead, called “Zimula,” became the
early warning system for the herd. When a swarm of flies approached, Zimula
would be the first to run, setting off a stampede. Our problem then was
to get them back together. Sometimes we welcomed the flies, though, because
if the cattle became too restless, we were allowed to drive them home
to their stalls and then we had the rest of the day off. The flies were
mostly a problem on hot, muggy days. On rainy days they left the cattle
to graze in peace.
Our dog Trezors was at first a big help in rounding up the cattle. Someone,
probably Father, had trained him. He would run way off to snag a stray
cow back into the herd, so much faster than I with my stubby little legs.
But then I got sore at Trezors, because he always came around for a piece
of bread—pant, pant, where is it? Where is my bread?—every
single time he brought back a cow. I didn’t like to carry a shepherd’s
bag full of bread for him. After all, did he think I was his servant?
My own lunch weighed a ton! So, he eventually began to play dumb. He kept
me company, but he did not chase cows on his own any more. First I lost
Grandmother’s help, then Trezors’.
Our best times when tending cattle were at the “far end,”
where farm met forest. The cattle were more peaceful there. They could
brush off the horseflies by rubbing against the thick undergrowth. Besides,
Father had built a kiln of stone and clay. The late afternoon air was
calm and the smoke from the kiln hung in low circles over the pasture,
keeping away the flies, while the cattle chewed the cud. We whiled away
the hours baking clay bricks and melting spruce resin. Some days we really
didn’t want to go home from the “far end,” but eventually
we had to heed Mother’s distant call to supper.
One summer, Robert and I played a malicious prank on our folks—we
called it “going bad.” It was in the days when he taught me
shepherding, before he was promoted to junior laborer and went on to the
fields to push the plow. The pasture where the cattle grazed was right
next to the oat field, behind a hill and a thick grove of trees, hidden
from sight. The tall, rich crop of oats from the summer had already been
harvested and gathered into tall stalks to dry out for winter fodder.
Instead of putting the cattle on the pasture as we were supposed to do,
we let them out on the oat field, and we marveled at the sight. Oh, how
they ate! They filled their bellies to bursting with tasty fresh oats.
Full to staggering, they lay down to chew the cud, and we took a long
play break. Later on, when we herded them back to the stalls, the attendants
marveled that the cows wouldn’t touch the food in the troughs. They
just went on chewing the cud! Of course, we played dumb.
Tending the “horned beasts,” as we called them in Latvian,
was the task I hated most. An especially nasty ram with big horns made
my life hell. If the neighbor’s sheep got too close, he would defect
to the other herd, and I had no way of bringing him back until evening,
when the neighbor had herded his own sheep back to the stalls. Only then
could we summon the grownups from our farm to come tie a rope around his
horns and drag him to where he belonged. Needless to say, we always got
a tongue lashing. Robert and I dreaded the sight of the ram’s hindquarters
fading in the distance, his huge sack flopping between hind legs. His
rear end meant nothing but trouble.
We figured out a way of getting even. Near the pasture field was a heavy
corral post, just what we needed. We did some teasing first, by advancing
toward him, making a fist with one outstretched arm. This drove him wild.
As the ram charged—we learned to look for the little clues—we
jumped behind the post, still shaking our fist and teasing: “Aoun,
aoun, Bute, aoun, Bute!” He would hit the post with a thud that
shook the ground, then would stagger off like a drunk. The ram survived,
but the post got pretty wobbly.
Now I see that we were two little Bolsheviks shaking our fists against
the powerful—and back then, Bolshevik was only a word to us.
Scoundrels on the Loose
to Contents page