by Maxim Gorky
first published, untitled, in Beseda for May–June 1923; appeared under the present title in Notes from My Diary (Berlin: Kniga, 1924)
newly translated from the Russian by Edmund Griffiths, 2017
Yermolai Makov, the old dealer in ‘antiquities’, was tall, thin, and straight, like a milepost. He walked the earth as if he were a soldier on the parade ground, and he looked at everything with enormous eyes, like a bull’s; in their cloudy, grey-blue gleam there was something despairing and apathetic. He struck me as stupid, especially because of a rather self-willed and contrary side to his character. He would show up with a clerk’s inkwell to sell, or an ornamental vessel presented to an official in old Muscovy, or an ancient coin, and he would haggle stubbornly, agree a price, and then abruptly announce in a sepulchral voice, ‘No, I don’t want to sell.’
‘Just don’t feel like it.’
‘So what was the point of going on about it for the last hour?’
He would shove the item into his bottomless coat pocket without a word, sigh heavily, and walk out, not even saying goodbye, as though terribly offended. But the next day—or sometimes only an hour later—he would suddenly reappear, put the item down on the table, and say, ‘Take it.’
‘Why wouldn’t you sell it to me before, then?’
‘Just didn’t feel like it.’
He wasn’t greedy for money; he gave a lot to the poor; but he didn’t take much care of himself. Summer and winter he wore the same elderly padded coat, the same rumpled cap, and the same thin boots. He was homeless; or rather he was always moving about, from Nizhny up to Murom, from Murom to Suzdal, Rostov, Yaroslavl, and then back to Nizhny, where he would invariably stay at Bubnov’s grubby boarding house. The place was inhabited by card sharps, sellers of canaries, undercover policemen, and all kinds of seekers after fortune. (They tended to seek it lying down, on sagging sofas, surrounded by clouds of tobacco smoke.) Makov attracted particular attention among this human detritus, as being both ‘marketable’ and a good storyteller: and the burden of his stories was always how the old ‘nests of the gentlefolk’ were ‘sickly’ and falling into decay. He would expand on this topic with a dull and melancholy kind of spite, emphasizing particularly insistently how foolish the landowners were.
‘They hit these balls around! They love it, hitting balls with a kind of wooden mallet. And they’re just the same as those balls themselves: they roll about this way and that, not one thought in their heads.’
One foggy night in autumn I bumped into Makov on board a Volga steamer headed for Kazan. The wheels were hardly stirring, and the boat was crawling its way through the fog blindly, carefully, going with the current; the lights blurred into the grey water and the grey fog, and the continuous bellow of the horn had a muffled sound. Everything was mournful, like a troubled dream. Makov was sitting in the stern, on his own, exactly as though he were hiding from someone. We got to talking, and here is what he told me:
‘It’s twenty-three years now that I’ve been living in constant fear, and there’s nothing can save me from it. And the thing that frightens me is quite unusual, sir: someone else’s soul has been implanted into my body. I was thirty, sir, and I was carrying on with this woman—well, a witch. Her husband was a mate of mine: he was a good guy, but he was ill, dying, in fact. And the night he died, that cursed female fished my soul out of me and stuck his soul in instead, while I was sleeping. Well, it was a good thing for her: he’d treated her kinder, that devil woman, kinder than I did. So he dies, and straight away I could tell I wasn’t the same person. I’ll say it straight, I’d never loved that woman, I’d just been having a bit of fun with her: and now all of a sudden my soul was being drawn to her. I didn’t even like her, but I couldn’t tear myself away from her. All my excellent qualities went up in smoke, there was this mysterious sadness wearing me out, I started acting all timid with her, and I could see: everything around me was greyish, as if it had been dusted with ash, but that woman—she was fire! She was toying with me. Her sinful flame licked around me every night. That was when I realized: she’d switched my soul, and I was living with someone else’s. But what about my own, my real own, the one God gave me? Where was it? I started getting scared...’
The horn sounded a warning. Its muffled drone hung in the fog. The boat swung its stern as though it had been pinched, and the water that splashed and gurgled underneath it was as black and greasy as tar. The old chap was leaning against the side: he shifted his feet in his heavy boots, put out his arms awkwardly to steady himself, and then continued in a quiet voice.
‘So I got scared. I went up into the loft, made a noose, and attached it to one of the rafters; but this washerwoman saw me and made a racket, and they pulled me down. And then I noticed there was this weird creature there with me: a six-legged spider, about the size of a small goat, with a beard, and horns, and tits like a woman’s. It had three eyes, as well—two in its head, and a third one between its breasts for looking down, looking at the earth, at my footprints. And wherever I go, it’s there, right behind me, hairy, on six legs, like a shadow cast by the moon, and nobody can see it except me. There it is, right there, and you can’t see it!’
Makov stretched out his hand to his left and stroked something in the air, about a foot and a half above the deck. Then he wiped his hand on his knee and said, ‘It’s wet.’
‘What,’ I said, ‘you’ve been living with this spider for twenty years?’
‘Twenty-three. You think I’m crazy? ’Cause it’s hiding from you, isn’t it, that spider. My guardian.’
‘Have you talked to the doctors about it?’
‘Well, really, sir, how could a doctor be any help? This isn’t some abscess that you can lance with a knife; you can’t poison it with medicine; ointments aren’t going to rub it off. And a doctor won’t be able to see it—not that spider.’
‘Does the spider talk to you?’
‘Are you joking?’ Makov stared at me in astonishment. ‘How would a spider be able to talk? No, it’s been sent to make me scared, so I don’t do away with myself and destroy somebody else’s soul. Because the soul that’s inside me isn’t my own, it’s stolen, sort of. Ten years or so back I had the idea of drowning myself. I went on a barge and tried to jump into the water, but that spider, it clung onto me and onto the side of the boat and there I was, dangling in the air. Well, I pretended I’d fallen overboard by accident. And the sailors said afterwards that it was my coat had saved me, it had caught on something; but that’s the coat that caught me, right there...’
Again he made his stroking movement, touching the damp air.
I stood in silence. I didn’t know what to say to somebody who was living side by side with such a fearful product of his own imagination, and yet wasn’t completely insane.
‘I’ve wanted to discuss this business with you for a long time,’ he said, quietly and pleadingly. ‘You talk boldly about everything. I believe in you. Would you help me out, and tell me what you think: was it God who sent me the spider, as a guardian, or was it the devil?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘You might at least think about it... I reckon it was God, it’s God looking after that man’s soul inside me. He didn’t fancy appointing an angel, I’m not worth an angel. A spider, now that’s cleverer, really. It’s scary—that’s the main thing. Took me ages to get used to it.’
He took off his cap, crossed himself, and said, quietly but with passion, ‘Great and merciful is our God, the father of reason, the shepherd of our souls.’
* * *
A few months later, on a moonlit night, I encountered Makov in a deserted street in Nizhny Novgorod. He was walking along the pavement, keeping close to the fence as though he were leaving room for someone.
The old chap smiled, bent down, ran his hand through the air, and said in kindly tones, ‘Here it is, right here!’
Three years afterwards I heard that Makov had been robbed and murdered in 1905, quite near to Balakhna.