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My Crime, a story by Ivan Franko
No, I cannot keep it a secret anymore — I have to tell people of my sin though I know that my confession will not relieve the pain in my soul. What can expiate the crime of spilling the blood of a harmless creature and of taking an innocent life?
I cannot help recalling the terrible events from my memory, and when the details in all their graphic and vivid starkness stand before my inner vision, I feel horrified. Many years have passed since it happened — maybe thirty, or more. I was then a small village boy who spent a lot of his time frolicking in the forest and in the fields in the vicinity of my native village.
It was a spring day, one of the first really warm days. We, the children, poured out of our houses, and started running around, chasing each other, or just gambolling around. We paid visits to our old friends — to the great ancient oak that stood at the edge of the forest; in summer we climbed up its bole and onto the benches, challenging each other who would do it faster; and to the birch tree, tall but slightly leaning to the side, with drooping branches. We would fix a swing on ropes from that birch and play on the swings, but the forester, if he saw us at it, would chase us away. We went to the spring in the forest which, surrounded by mighty elms, attracted animals that came to drink water from it. We spied foxes, badgers and even wild boars there. We went to the lake where we fished with our fishing rods and lines, sometimes catching fish, but mostly just enjoying the quiet. When the sun would become too hot, we would take off clothes and plunge into the cool and clear water.
On that warm spring day we found a fledgling that was hiding in the yesteryear dry grass in the thicket. The little bird did not take off when he saw us coming either because he could not fly yet or was too frightened to move, and I grabbed him. The boys stood around me, looking at the small bird clasped in my hand.
“What a nice birdie!”
“I’ve never seen such birds before!”
“Look, look at his eyes!”
“And such fine feathers he has!”
The bird was indeed of the kind that was rarely seen in the area where my village was situated. His feathers were of an ashy grey colour with a touch of a pearly tint; the dark-green beak was very thin, and his legs were long and very thin too. The bird sat in my hand without any movement; he did not try to peck at my flesh with his beak the way other birds would do if caught.
“What are you going to do with it?” asked the boys enviously, staring at the bird.
“I’ll take him home.”
“I’ll take care of him, I’ll feed him.”
“But do you know what a bird like this eats?”
“I don’t know but I’ll try to give him bread crumbs, and if he refuses to eat that, I’ll give him flies, or worms, or snails, or some seeds, or grain. I’ll sure find something that he’ll eat.”
And I did take the bird home. I did not have a cage to put him in, so I put him between the panes of one of the double windows in our house. I hoped the bird would have enough room there and enough light. Once placed there, between the two frames of the window, the bird started to walk quickly around back and forth on the narrow strip at the bottom, pecking at the glass here and there. He would stop for a moment to look at the wide world beyond the glass, the world in which he would be free to go where he pleased. He moved his head in quick, jerky movements the way birds do it. I imagined he was looking at the apple tree that stood in the garden some distance away from the window — and then he would resume his running back and forth without trying to take wing.
The more I looked at that bird confined between the window frames, the more it seemed to me that the bird was very sorry to be held prisoner. I felt sad and grew sick at heart watching the bird’s yearning for freedom. As I became sadder and sadder, something in me began telling me, “Let him go, don’t keep here!” But another voice in me said, “He is so nice, and small and vulnerable. Maybe he’ll get accustomed to this new place.”
I wished I knew what to give him to eat but I really did not know what it should be, so I gave him a few crumbs of bread, some grains of millet and several flies that I had caught in the house especially for the bird. I put these three kinds of food, one separately from the other, on clean potsherds, and gave the bird some water too, in a deeper, concave potsherd. And then I went out leaving my captive alone. When I came back, I discovered that the bird had not apparently touched anything of what I had offered him. He was sitting in the corner, craning his neck, and looking at the outside world. I imagined he was looking at the of Mount Kherebe-Hora in the distance which was still covered with snow, and which, in the rays of the setting sun, looked as though it had been put on fire. The bird jerked his head from time to time, and these movements seemed to be full of a great woe.
“Maybe he is a night bird that eats food at night,” I said to myself to ease the worry that began gnawing at me. I went to bed and slept well, without any thoughts about the bird troubling me. But when I woke up, the first thing I did was to run to that window in the sitting room where the bird was confined, and have a look at him.
The bird did not seem to have moved at all from the place that he was sitting at the previous evening — and he continued staring at the wide world beyond the window, the lost world of freedom. Once in a while he jerked his head in a quick movement — and then sat still. Apparently, he had not touched the food either.
An inner voice cried out in me, “Let him go, let him go, you are torturing him! He will die of hunger and sorrow!” But the other voice whispered, “No, just bring him worms and snails — maybe, that’s what he eats.”
I went out looking for worms and snails but when I brought my catch to the bird, he did not pay any attention to these dainties. He never took eyes off the vernal world beyond the window.
That day I was out for the whole day, and when I came back in the evening and checked on the bird, he was there, in his corner, his food untouched.
“That’s very strange,” I thought to myself, and I decided I should let him go there and then. But then another thought came to my head, “He’s too weak after two days of fasting, and if I let him go now, he would become an easy prey for a cat! Let him stay at my place until morning, and then I’ll take him to the place where I found him and will let him go!”
Early next morning, I rushed to the window to look at my captive — he was there, in the corner, looking feeble and drained. When I stretched out my hand to pick him up, he did not try to run away; neither did he make any sounds — he just stared at me with his sad eyes. Only once did it move his head, as though nodding in approval. He seemed to be saying, “Good, I’m being taken somewhere; I knew all along it would end like this, in my being released.”
The bird was warm and quiet in my hand; the gentle touch of his soft feathers on my skin felt very pleasant. And then a cruel thought crawled into my head, “His meat must be very soft and delicious! What if I kill it and bake it?”
Immediately, the other, angelic voice in me began pleading, “No, no, release him! Look at him! He is so small that there will be no meat on him to eat! Let him go!”
While I was hesitating what to do with the bird, alternately listening to both voices in me, one telling me stubbornly that I was free to do with that bird whatever I wanted to, and the other begging me to free the bird, the bird did not stir in my hand, as though he had resigned himself to whatever fate was waiting for him. I opened my hand but the bird did not make any attempt to fly.
“See,” I told myself, “he does not want to go anywhere, he can escape but he does not care to!”
And from the depth of my heart came a whisper, “But he is feeble, so hungry, he just can’t fly!”
“Well, if he can’t fly, so much worse for him,” I cried out and wrung the bird’s neck. The beautiful, soft bird jerked his long legs a couple of times and died. On my palm lay a small, dead, useless avian body with a drop or two of blood on its twisted neck.
I felt something breaking down in me — I instantly knew I had done something terribly senseless, revolting. I have killed in cold blood! I have committed a crime! My guilt will haunt me forever! No matter how much I pray, it will always be with me! I have destroyed an innocent life! I have destroyed a beautiful living being! The world around me is full of warm, gentle sun, the nature is pulsating with vernal beauty — and I have caused a death, without reason or sense! It was a totally senseless death too — the bird was so small there would be nothing to eat!
I was so shocked by what I had done I could not make myself look at the tiny carcass — I let it fall to the ground, and ran away. I was thoroughly confused, badly shaken, greatly disturbed, and deeply depressed. I tried to suppress the memory of what I had done, to chase away thoughts about the bird but I could not. Neither could I burst into tears though I wanted to very much — my heart felt as though gripped in a clutch, and my soul could not find relief in tears. The small bird had made his way into my soul and it seemed to me it would stay there forever, looking at me with its oh so sad eyes, in a quiet resignation, nodding his head and saying, “I have been robbed of the joy of spring, I have been given death instead.”
But a child’s sorrow does not live long. A couple of days later I forgot the poor bird so senselessly killed by me, and his longing for freedom. It seemed to me then that the memory of it was deleted from my heart, but it stayed buried under new impressions and experiences in a dark corner of my soul.
And then, more than twenty years later, the recollections about that bird came back to me when I, still a young man, full of vigour, eager to live and love, was thrown into prison. This terrible blow struck me in the middle of a gorgeous summer and the imprisonment was particularly hard to bear knowing that there, beyond the prison walls, the glory of nature was in full bloom, whereas I was condemned to wilt and lose my vitality, to watch my hopes crumble, to realize that everything that I considered to be the greatest treasure of my soul was going to waste, senselessly and uselessly. Why this merciless cruelty was being done to me, I asked, why the treasures of my soul are being trampled under foot, why is my life being destroyed for no apparent reason? And then, during a sleepless night, filled with anxiety, the vision of that small, handsome bird appeared before my mind’s eye. His sad eyes, full of resignation, looked at me, looked straight into my heart, and the bird said slowly, in a low voice, “I’m a prisoner, I’ve been robbed of the spring of my life, I know what is in store for me…”
Since then, that bird has always been on my mind. He poisons the moments of happiness, saps my strength and courage which I need at the moments of adversity. That bird seems to have concentrated in itself everything senseless, cruel and base that I have ever done in my life. That small bird whose life was so ruthlessly taken away from him by me has come to be my greatest tormentor. In the quiet of the night, in my night dreams I hear his pecking at the window pane to wake me up. At the time, when pain and despair sink their claws into my heart, when my resolution and determination are faltering, I seem to turn into that small bird, week, hungry and powerless. I feel as though a pitiless, unfeeling, mindless but immensely strong and relentless power is holding me in its grip, and all I can do is look helplessly at the fleeting ghosts of freedom and happiness, knowing that any moment this power can wring my neck, without reason or purpose.
Drawings by M. ROYTMAN