Taman is the most miserable dump of all the seaboard towns in Russia. I very nearly died of hunger there, and was almost drowned in the bargain. I arrived by stage coach late at night. The coachman stopped his tired troika at the gate of the only brick building, which stood at the entrance to the town. Roused from a doze by the tinkling of the carriage bell, the Black Sea Cossack on sentry duty shouted wildly: “Who goes there?” A Cossack sergeant and a corporal emerged from the building. I explained that I was an officer on my way to join an active service unit on official business and demanded housing for the night. The corporal took us around town. All the cottages we stopped at were occupied. It was chilly, and not having slept for three nights running, I was exhausted and began to lose my temper. “Take me anywhere you want, you good-for-nothing! To hell, if you please, as long as there’s a place to stay!” I shouted. “There is still one place left,” the corporal replied, scratching the back of his head. “Only you won’t like it, sir; there are strange goings on there…” Failing to understand the precise meaning of the last remark, I told him to go ahead, and after wandering about for a long time in muddy alleys lined with rickety fences, we drove up to a small hut on the seashore.
A full moon lit up the reed roof and white walls of my prospective dwelling. In the courtyard, which was fenced in by a crude stone wall, stood another miserable, crooked hut, smaller and older than the first. A cliff dropped abruptly to the sea from the very walls of the hut, and down below the dark-blue waves broke against the shore with an incessant roar. The moon looked down serenely upon the restless ships at anchor far from the shore, their black rigging a motionless cobweb against the paler background of the skyline. “There are ships in the anchorage,” thought I. “Tomorrow I’ll leave for Gelendzhik.”
A Cossack from a front-line unit served as my valet. Telling him to take down my suitcase and dismiss the driver, I called for the master of the house. There was no answer. I knocked, and still there was no reply. What could it mean? Finally a boy of about fourteen appeared from the porch.
“Where is the master?” “No master.” “What? You mean there is no master at all?” “None at all.” “And the mistress?” “Gone to town.” “Who’s going to open the door for me?” said I, kicking at it. The door opened by itself, and a damp smell came from the hut. I struck a sulfur match and brought it close to the youngster’s nose, and in its light I saw two white eyes. He was blind, totally blind from birth. As he stood motionless before me I looked closely into his face.
I admit that I’m greatly prejudiced against all the blind, squint-eyed, deaf, mute, legless, armless, hunch-backed and so on. I’ve observed that there’s always some strange relationship between the external appearance of a man and his soul, as if with the loss of a limb the soul too has lost some faculty of sensation.
So I examined the blind lad’s face, but what would you have me read on a face without eyes? I looked at him long with involuntary pity, when a faint smile flitted across his thin lips, making, I know not why, the most unpleasant impression on me. A suspicion that he wasn’t as blind as he seemed flashed through my mind, and in vain I tried to assure myself that it’s impossible to pretend to have a cataract. And why would anyone do that? But I couldn’t help suspecting, for I am often inclined to preconceived notions.
“Are you the master’s son?” I asked him at last. “Nay.” “Then who are you?” “Orphan, a poor orphan.” “Has the mistress any children?” “Nay. There was a daughter but she ran away across the sea with a Tatar.” “What kind of a Tatar?” “The devil knows! A Crimean Tatar, a boatman from Kerch.”
I walked into the hut. Two benches, a table and a huge trunk next to the stove were the sole furnishings. Not a single icon was there on the wall-a bad sign that! The sea wind blew in through a broken window. I took out the stub of a wax candle from my suitcase and lighting it began to lay out my things. I put my sword and gun in a corner, laid my pistols on the table, and spread out my cloak on a bench while the Cossack laid out his on the other. In ten minutes he was snoring, but I couldn’t sleep. The lad with the white eyes kept twirling before me in the darkness.
About an hour passed in this way. The moon shone into the window and a beam of light played on the earth floor of the hut. Suddenly a shadow darted across the bright strip on the floor. I got up and looked out of the window. Someone again ran past and disappeared, God knows where. It didn’t seem possible that the somebody could have run down the cliff to the shore, yet he could not have gone anywhere else. I got up, put on my shirt, fastened a knife to my belt, and softly went out of the hut. The blind boy was coming towards me. I moved close to the fence, and he went past with sure though cautious tread. He carried a bundle under his arm. Turning toward the boat landing, he began down along a narrow, steep path. “On that day shall the mute sing out and the blind shall see,”… I thought, following close enough not to lose sight of him.
In the meantime clouds began to close around the moon and a fog came up at sea. The stern light of the ship nearest the shore was barely visible through it. On the shore gleamed the foam of the breakers, which threatened to submerge it at any moment. Picking my way with difficulty down the steep slope, I saw the blind boy stop, then turn to the right and proceed so close to the water that it seemed the waves must surely grab him and carry him out to sea. It was obvious, however, that this was not the first time he was taking this stroll, judging by the confidence with which he stepped from stone to stone and avoided the holes. At last he stopped as if listening for something, then sat down on the ground with his bundle beside him. Hidden behind a projecting cliff I watched his movements. A few minutes later a figure in white appeared from the other side, walked up to the blind boy and sat down beside him. The wind carried fragments of their conversation to me.
“What do you say, blind one?” a woman’s voice said. “The storm is too heavy; Yanko won’t come.”
“Yanko is not afraid of storms,” the other replied.
“The fog’s thickening,” came the woman’s voice again with a note of sadness.
“It will be easier to slip by the patrol ships in the fog,” was the reply.
“What if he’s drowned?”
“Well, what of it? You’ll go to church on Sunday without a new ribbon.”
A silence followed. I was struck, however, by one thing: the blind boy had spoken to me in the Ukrainian dialect, and now he was speaking pure Russian.
“You see, I’m right,” said the blind boy again, clapping his hands. “Yanko does not fear the sea, or the winds, or the fog, or yet the coast patrols. Listen, that’s not the waves splashing, you can’t fool me; those are his long oars.”
The woman jumped up and peered anxiously into the distance.
“You’re raving, blind one,” she said. “I don’t see anything.”
I must admit that, strain as I did, I couldn’t detect anything like a boat in the distance. Some ten minutes had passed that way when a black speck now growing larger, now smaller, appeared among the mountainous billows, Slowly climbing to the crests of the waves and sharply dropping into the troughs, the boat approached the shore. It was an very brave oarsman who ventured on a night like this to cross the fifteen miles of the strait, and the reason that was behind it must have been important indeed. Thus thinking, my heart involuntarily quickening its beat, I watched the frail craft dive with the dexterity of a duck and then leap up from the watery chasm through the flying foam with a swift movement of the oars that recalled the thrust of wings. I thought it would have to crash full force against the shore and be dashed to pieces, but it neatly swung around and slipped safely into a tiny bay. A man of medium size, wearing a Tatar sheepskin cap, stepped from the boat. He motioned with his hand and all three began to haul something from the craft. The cargo was so great that to this day I can’t understand why the boat hadn’t sunk. Each shouldering a bundle, they set out along the shore and I soon lost sight of them. I had to return to my lodgings. I must admit, however, that all these strange doings alarmed me, and I could hardly wait for the morning.
My Cossack was very much surprised when upon waking up he found me fully dressed, but I gave him no explanation. After admiring for some time the blue sky mottled with ragged little clouds and the Crimean coast which spread out in a line of mauve in the distance and ended in a crag topped by the white tower of a lighthouse, I set out for the Phanagoria fort to inquire at the commandant’s when I could leave for Gelendzhik.
But, alas, the commandant was unable to tell me anything definite. The vessels in the harbor were either coast guard ships or merchant boats which hadn’t even begun loading. “Perhaps there’ll be a packet boat in three or four days,” the commandant said, “and then we’ll see.” I returned to my lodgings sad and angry. My Cossack met me at the door with a scared look on his face.
“Looks bad, sir!” he said.
“Yes, my friend. The Lord knows when we will get away!” Now he looked still more worried. Bending toward me, he whispered: “It’s an unclean place here! Today I met a Cossack sergeant I know-we were in the same detachment last year. When I told him where we’d stopped he said to me: ‘Brother, it’s unclean there; the people are no good!’ And, come to think of it, what sort of a fellow is this blind man? Goes everywhere alone, to the market, for bread, and to fetch water. You can see they’re used to that sort of thing here.”
“What of it? Has the mistress of the house appeared at least?”
“While you were out today an old woman came with her daughter.”
“What daughter? She has no daughter.”
“God knows who she is then, if she’s not. The old woman is in the hut now.”
I went inside. The stove had been stoked up until it was hot and a dinner rather sumptuous for poor folk was cooking. To all my questions the old woman replied that she was deaf and couldn’t hear me. What could I do? I addressed the blind boy, who was sitting in front of the stove feeding brushwood into the fire. “Now tell me, you blind imp,” said I, taking hold of his ear, “where did you go last night with that bundle, eh?” He burst into tears and began howling and wailing: “Where’d I go? Nowhere. And I don’t know of any bundle.” This time the old woman heard what was going on and began to grumble: “Of all the things to imagine, and about a poor boy like him, too! Why can’t you leave him alone? What has he done to you?” I got tired of this and I walked out firmly resolved to find the key to the riddle.
I wrapped my cloak around me and sat down on a boulder beside the wall, looking into the distance. Before me spread the sea agitated by last night’s gale, and its monotonous roar like the murmuring of a city falling into slumber reminded me of bygone years, carrying my thoughts to the North, to our frigid capital. Stirred by memories I forgot all else. An hour and perhaps more passed that way. Suddenly something like a song caught my ear. It was indeed a song, and the voice was pleasant, feminine, but where did it come from? I listened to it. It was a strange melody, now slow and plaintive, now fast and lively. I looked around, but saw no one. I listened again, and the sound seemed to drop from the heavens. I looked up, and on the roof of the hut I saw a girl in a striped dress, a real mermaid with loose long hair. Shading her eyes from the sun with her hand, she was looking into the distance, now smiling and talking to herself, now starting up the song again.
I memorized the song word for word:
Over boundless billows green,
Over billows surging,
Fly the ships with sails a-spread,
There among those ships at sea,
Sails my shallop sprightly,
Curtsying to wind and wave,
Kissed by combers lightly.
Stormy winds begin to blow,
Stately ships a-rocking,
Widely do they spread their wings-
To leeward flocking.
The angry ocean then I pray,
Bending low before him:
“Spare my bark, Oh fearsome one!”-
Thus I do implore him.-
“Precious goods are stowed on board!-
The sea foam is a fright!-
Keep her safe-a crazy one steers
Through the darkening night!”
It occurred to me that I had heard the same voice the night before. For a moment I was lost in thought, and when I looked up at the roof again, the girl was no longer there. Suddenly she skipped past me, singing a different tune. Snapping her fingers, she ran in to the old woman, and I heard their voices rise in argument. The old woman grew very angry but the girl merely laughed aloud. A short while later my mermaid came skipping along again. As she approached me she paused and looked me straight in the eyes, as if surprised at finding me there. Then she turned away carelessly and went quietly down to the boat landing. This, however, wasn’t the end of it: all day long she hovered around near me, singing and skipping about without a moment’s rest. She was a strange creature indeed. There was nothing foolish about her expression-on the contrary, her eyes inspected me with keen penetration, they seemed to be endowed with some magnetic power, and each glance appeared to invite a question, but as soon as I opened my mouth to speak she ran away, smiling artfully.
Never had I seen a woman like her. She was far from beautiful, though I have my preconceived notions as regards beauty as well. There was much of the thoroughbred in her, and in women as in horses that is a great thing – this is something discovered by Young France . It (I mean breeding, not Young France) is betrayed mainly by the walk and by the hands and feet, and particularly characteristic is the nose. In Russia a classic straight, Roman nose is rarer than small feet. My songstress looked no more than eighteen. Her extraordinarily supple figure, the peculiar way she had of tilting her head, her long auburn hair, the golden sheen of her slightly sun-tanned neck and shoulders, and especially her finely chiseled straight nose enchanted me. Though I could read something wild and suspicious in her sidelong glances and though there was something indefinable in her smile, the preconceived notions got the better of me. The chiseled nose knocked me off my feet, and I fancied I had found Goethe’s Mignon, that fanciful figment of his German imagination. And indeed, there was much in common between the two, the same swift transitions from supreme agitation to utter immobility, the same enigmatic conversation, the same gambolling and the same strange songs…
Toward evening I stopped her in the doorway and engaged her in the following conversation:
“Tell me, my pretty one,” I asked, “what were you doing on the roof today?”
“Looking where the wind blows from.”
“Whence the wind blows, thence blows happiness.”
“Indeed, were you invoking happiness by song?”
“Where there is song there is also good fortune.”
“Supposing you sing in grief for yourself?”
“What of it? If things will not be better, they’ll be worse, and then it’s not so far from bad to good.”
“Who taught you that song?”
“No one taught it to me. I sing whatever comes to my mind; he to whom I sing will hear; he to whom I don’t won’t understand.”
“What is your name, my nightingale?”
“Whoever named me knows.”
“And who named you?”
“How should I know?”
“You are furtive! But I’ve learned something about you.” There was no change in her expression, not even a trembling of her lips, as if it all were no concern of hers. “I’ve learned that you went down to the shore last night.” Assuming an air of importance I told her everything I had seen, hoping to disconcert her, but no way! She only burst out laughing. “You saw a lot but you know little-and what you do know you’d best keep under lock and key.”
“Supposing I took it into my head to report to the commandant?” And here I adopted a very serious, even severe face. Suddenly she bounded off and began singing, disappearing like a bird frightened into flight. My last remark was entirely out of place, though at the time I did not suspect its full significance and only later had occasion to regret ever having made it.
It was already just dark and I told the Cossack to put on the kettle, lit a candle and sat at the table smoking my traveling pipe. I was already finishing my second glass of tea when the door suddenly creaked and I heard the soft rustle of a dress and light footsteps behind me. I was startled and turned around: it was she, my mermaid! She sat down opposite me without a word and looked at me with eyes that for some unfathomable reason seemed full of sweet tenderness. They reminded me of eyes that years before had so despotically played with my life. She seemed to wait for me to speak, but I was too confused to say a word. The deathly white of her face betrayed the tumult within her. Her hand aimlessly wandered over the table and I noticed that it trembled-now her bosom rose high, now she seemed to be holding her breath. The comedy began to fade and I was ready to cut it short in the most ordinary fashion by offering her a glass of tea when she jumped up, twisted her arms around my neck and planted a moist, fiery kiss on my lips. Everything went dark before my eyes, my head swam, and I embraced her with all my youthful passion, but she slipped like a snake from my arms, whispering in my ear: “Meet me on the shore tonight after everyone is asleep”, and ran out of the room as swift as an arrow. In the hallway she upset the tea-kettle and the candle standing on the floor. “She-devil!” shouted the Cossack, who had made himself comfortable on some straw and was intending to warm himself with the tea I had left. I came to myself suddenly.
Some two hours later when all was quiet in the harbor I woke up my Cossack. “If you hear a pistol shot,” I told him, “run down to the waterfront.” He opened his eyes wide but replied mechanically: “Yes, sir.” I stuck a pistol under my belt and went out. She was waiting for me at the top of the slope, flimsily clad to say the least, a small shawl tied around her supple waist.
“Follow me,” she said, taking me by the hand, and we started down the slope. I do not know how I managed not to break my neck. At the bottom we turned to the right and took the same path along which I had followed the blind boy the night before. The moon had not risen yet, and only two stars like two distant lighthouses shone in the dark blue sky. The swell came in at even, regular intervals, barely lifting the lone boat moored to the shore. “Let’s get into the boat,” said my companion. I hesitated, for I have no predilection for sentimental sea jaunts, but this was not the time to retreat. She jumped into the boat and I followed, and before I knew it we had cast off. “What does this mean?” I asked, angrily now. “It means,” she said as she pushed me on to a seat and wrapped her arms around me, “that I love you.” She pressed her cheek against mine and I felt her breath hot on my face. Suddenly something splashed into the water; I reached for my belt, but the pistol was gone. Now a terrible suspicion crept into my heart and the blood rushed to my head. Looking around, I saw we were already some hundred yards from the shore, and there am I unable to swim! I wanted to push her away but she clung to my clothes like a cat, then gave me a sharp push that nearly threw me overboard. The boat rocked dangerously, but I regained my balance, and a desperate struggle began between us. Fury gave me strength, but I soon noticed that my opponent was more agile than I. “What do you want?” I shouted, gripping her small hands. I could hear her fingers crack, but she didn’t cry out-her snakelike nature was superior to the pain.
“You saw us,” she replied, “and you will tell on us.” With a superhuman effort she forced me against the gunwale until we both hung perilously over the water and her hair dipped into it. The moment was decisive. I braced my knee against the side of the boat and held her by the hair with one hand and the throat with the other. She let go of my clothes and in a flash I had hurled her into the sea.
It was already quite dark and after seeing her head bob up a couple of times in the foam I lost sight of her completely.
I found a piece of an old oar at the bottom of the boat, and after a great deal of effort managed to reach the landing. As I was making my way along the shore back to the hut, my eyes turned involuntarily toward the spot where the blind boy had waited for the nocturnal boatman the night before. The moon was coming up and in its light I thought I saw someone with white clothes sitting on the shore. Spurred on by curiosity I crept towards it and lay down in the grass on top of a hill rising from the shore. By raising my head slightly I could observe everything that happened below, and I was neither too surprised nor too sorry to find my mermaid there. She was wringing the sea water from her long hair, and I noticed how her wet shift outlined her lithe form and raised breasts. Soon a boat appeared in the distance and quickly approached the shore. Like the night before, a man stepped out of it wearing a Tatar cap, though his hair was cut in Cossack fashion, and he had a large knife stuck under his belt. “Yanko,” she said, “everything is lost!” They continued talking, but in so low a voice that I could not hear a word. “And where is the blind one?” Yanko finally asked in a louder tone. “I sent him for something,” was the reply. A few minutes later the blind boy appeared carrying a bag on his back. This was put into the boat.
“Listen, blind one,” said Yanko, “take care of that spot, you know what I mean? There’s a wealth of goods there… And tell (the name I could not make out) that I am no longer his servant. Things have turned out badly and he’ll see me no more. It’s dangerous to go on. I’m going to look for work elsewhere; he won’t find another daredevil like me. And tell him that had he paid more generously, Yanko wouldn’t have left him. I can always make my way wherever the wind blows and the sea roars!” After a brief pause, Yanko continued: “I’ll take her with me, for she can’t stay behind, and tell the old woman it’s time she died. She’s lived long enough and ought to know when her time’s up. She’ll never see us again.”
“What about me?” the blind boy whimpered.
“What do I need you for?” was the answer.
In the meantime my mermaid had jumped into the boat and was making signs to the other to come. Yanko put something into the blind boy’s hand and muttered: “Here, buy yourself some ginger cakes.” “Is that all?” asked the blind one. “All right, take this too.” The coin rang as it fell on the stones. The blind boy didn’t pick it up. Yanko got into the boat, and as the wind was blowing out to sea, they raised a small sail and quickly slipped into the distance. For a long time the white sail flashed among the dark waves in the moonlight. The blind boy remained sitting on the shore, and I heard something that sounded like sobbing: it was the blind boy crying, and he cried for a long, long time… A sadness came over me. Why did fate have to throw me into the peaceful lives of honest smugglers? Like a stone hurled into the placid surface of a pond I had disturbed their tranquillity, and like a stone had nearly gone to the bottom myself!
I returned to where I was staying. In the hall a candle spluttered its last on a wooden platter, while my Cossack, orders notwithstanding, was fast asleep, gripping a gun with both hands. I didn’t disturb him, and picking up the candle went into the room. But alas, my box, my silver-inlaid saber and a Daghestan dagger that I’d received as a present from a friend had all disappeared. Now I guessed what the confounded blind boy had been carrying. Waking up the Cossack with little ceremony, I swore at him and vented my anger, but there was nothing that could be done about it any more. And wouldn’t it have been idiotic for me to complain to my superiors that I’d been robbed by a blind boy and that an eighteen-year-old girl had all but drowned me?
Thank God an opportunity offered itself the following morning to travel on, and I left Taman. What became of the old woman and the poor blind boy, I don’t know. And, after all, what have human joys and sorrows to do with me, an officer who travels around on official business!
 nechisto, just unclean, but there are overtones of haunted or evil, perhaps influenced by Undina.
 nechisto, just unclean, but there are overtones of haunted or evil, perhaps influenced by Undina.
 Black Sea port near Caucasus, south of Taman.
 “On that day shall the mute sing out and the blind shall see:” Isaiah 35:5-6, 29:18.
 Nabokov insists the word used means “boulders” and goes into a long explanation of why it should be translated “billows”.
 as the name indicates, this is what is left of an ancient Greek colony on the Black Sea.
 actually, “undine,” as in Zhukovsky’s poem Undina and an 1811 French romance.
 changed here from “gloaming”.
 not to be confused with the political movement a little later, this was a foolish group of dandies in Paris who ineffectually looked down on the solid middle class and posed such ridiculous propositions as this one.
 pseudo-science such as phrenology and diagnosis by facial features was common at the time. It would not be surprising to see Roman features in people living in Black Sea towns.
 heroine from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister.