The Volga River divided the world in half. The left shore was low and yellow, a flat expanse that gave way to the steppe, out of which the sun rose every morning. The land here was bitter to the taste and dug up by ground squirrels. The grass was thick and tall; the trees, squat and sparse. Fields and melon patches spread beyond the horizon, colorful as a Bashkir blanket. Villages clung to the water’s edge. A breeze wafted from the steppe, hot and fragrant—like the Turkmen desert and the salty Caspian Sea
No one knew what the soil on the other bank was like. On that bank, mighty mountains piled up above the river, falling sharply to the water as though sliced off by a knife. Along the cut, sand flowed from between the rocks; but the mountains didn’t subside. Instead, they grew steeper and stronger with every passing year. In summer, the woods that covered them showed blue-green; in winter—white. The sun set behind these mountains. Beyond them lay more woods, cool holly trees and dark, dense conifers, and big Russian cities with white stone churches, and marshes, and transparent blue lakes of icy water. Perpetual cold seemed to sweep down off the right shore—the distant North Sea breathed from behind the mountains. Sometimes, for old time’s sake, someone would call it the Great German Lake.
Jacob Ivanovich Bach, the Schoolmaster, sensed this invisible separation through the very middle of the smooth surface of the Volga, its waves shot through with steel and blackened silver. The few people with whom he shared his eccentric thoughts, however, were bewildered, as they were inclined to
view their native Gnadenthal as the center of a small universe surrounded by the Volga steppe, rather than a frontier outpost. Bach preferred not to argue. Every expression of discord caused him emotional pain. He suffered even when he had to take a negligent pupil to task during a lesson. Perhaps that was why he was thought to be a mediocre teacher. Bach had a quiet voice, and a rather stunted build. His appearance was so unprepossessing that there was really nothing to say about it—much like his life.
Early each morning, Bach awoke by starlight, and, still lying under the quilted goose-down comforter, listened to the world. The quiet, dissonant sounds of alien life, flowing around and above him, soothed him. Winds blew across the roof—in winter, strong winds, thick with snow and icy sleet; in spring, elastic winds, breathing moisture and celestial electricity. In summer, the winds were pallid and dry, a jumble of dust and feathergrass seeds. Dogs barked, welcoming their masters as they stepped out onto their porches. Livestock bellowed on the way to the watering place. (An industrious colonist never gives his bullocks or his camels yesterday’s water from a bucket, or thawed snow, but leads them down to drink from the Volga—first thing, even before sitting down to breakfast and starting the daily round of other chores.) The women struck up their long-drawn-out songs in the yards—either to adorn the cold morning air or simply to fend off sleep. The world breathed, chirred, whistled, lowed, stamped its hooves, clanked, and sang in clear, polyphonic voices.
The sounds of Bach’s own life were so meager and insignificant that he had ceased to listen to them. The one window in his room rattled amid gusts of wind. (Only last year, he had secured the glass in the frame more firmly and caulked the seams with camel’s hair.) The flue, which hadn’t been cleaned in a long time, crackled. Now and then, a little gray mouse squeaked from behind the stove—though perhaps it was just the draft blowing through the floorboards, and the mouse had died, having long ago become food for worms. Those were, it seemed, the only sounds. To listen to life at large was much more interesting. Sometimes, when he was listening, Bach even forgot that he himself was part of that world—that he, too, could go out into the yard and join in the polyphony, making noise, and singing something loudly, fervently. The colonist’s anthem, Ach Wolge, Wolge! for instance. Or he could slam the front door. Or, if nothing else, just sneeze. But Bach preferred to listen.
At six in the morning, dressed and groomed, he was already standing beside the schoolyard bell, pocket watch in hand. Having waited for the two hands of the clock to form a single line—the hour hand on six, the minute hand on twelve—he yanked the rope with all his might. The bronze bell resounded with a hollow boom. After many long years, Bach had attained such mastery in this task that he could sound the bell exactly when the minute hand touched the zenith of the clock face. In the next moment—Bach knew this—every male inhabitant of the colony would pause, removing a peaked hat or cap, and whisper a short prayer. A new day had begun in Gnadenthal.
It was the schoolmaster’s duty to ring the bell thrice each day: at six in the morning, at noon, and at nine in the evening. Bach considered the resonant boom of the bell to be his only worthwhile contribution to the symphony of life around him.
Having waited for the last slight vibration to drain from the bell’s flank, Bach ran back to the schoolhouse. The building was constructed from sturdy northern timber—the colonists purchased floatable wood that traveled down the Volga from the Zhiguli Mountains, or even Kazan province. It had a stone foundation, daubed with mud and straw for durability, and the roof was made in the new fashion, from tin, which had recently replaced the desiccated roof boards. Every spring, Bach himself painted the carved window frames and door a vivid sky-blue.
The building was long, with six large windows on each side. The classroom took up almost all the space inside. The teacher’s kitchen and bedroom were partitioned off at one end. The main heating stove was also located at that end. It didn’t put out enough warmth to heat the entire space, and three small iron stoves were placed along the wall, and so the classroom always smelled of iron: in winter, red-hot, in summer, damp and cold. At the opposite end of the room was the teacher’s rostrum, with the pupils’ benches arrayed in front of it. In the first row, called the “donkeys” row, sat the smallest children, and those whose behavior or studiousness was open to question. The older pupils sat in the rows behind.
The classroom also contained: a large chalkboard; a cupboard packed with writing paper and geographical maps; several heavy rulers (often used not as intended, but for disciplinary purposes); and a portrait of the Russian emperor, displayed solely on the orders of the school inspectors. It must be said that this portrait had caused only fuss and bother. After it was acquired, the village elder, Peter Dietrich, had to subscribe to a newspaper, so that—God protect us!—he wouldn’t overlook news of a change of emperors in distant St. Petersburg and get mixed up before the commissioners at the next inspection. Before that, news from the Russian part of the empire would arrive in the colony so late that it seemed they lived not in the heart of the Volga region, but in another country altogether. So, such confusion was not unthinkable.
At one time, Bach had dreamed of painting an image of the great Goethe on the wall; nothing came of it, however. Julius Wagner, the miller, who often visited Saratov on business, promised, come what may, “to track down a picture of the wordsmith, if one happened to be lying around in a shop somewhere.” But since the miller was not overly fond of poetry and had only a vague idea of the outward aspect of his celebrated countryman, he was treacherously deceived. Instead of Goethe, an old swindler pawned off on him a rather awful portrait of an anemic-looking aristocrat in an absurd lace collar, with a generous mustache and a pointed beard, who bore a passing resemblance to Cervantes, but only when viewed in poor light. Anton Fromm, a Gnadenthal artist famed for his decorative flourishes on trunks and cupboards, offered to paint over the mustache and beard, and at the bottom of the portrait, underneath the lace collar, to write “GOETHE,” in large white letters. But Bach wouldn’t agree to the forgery. So the schoolhouse was left without Goethe, and the ill-fated portrait was given away to the artist—at his persistent request—“to inspire the imagination,” as he put it.
After fulfilling his bell-ringing duties, Bach would stoke the stove to warm the classroom before the pupils arrived, then run back to his nook to eat breakfast. True, what he ate and drank in the mornings he could not have said, as he didn’t pay the least bit of attention to it. Only one thing could be stated for certain: instead of coffee, Bach drank “red slops that resembled camel’s urine.” This was how Elder Dietrich had described it after visiting the schoolmaster early in the morning on an urgent matter and sharing breakfast with him, five or six years ago. Since that time, the Elder no longer stopped over for breakfast (nor, it must be said, did anyone else). Bach remembered his words; but the memory didn’t trouble him one bit. He felt a sincere sympathy for camels.
From A Volga Tale by Guzel Yakhina. Used with the permission of the publisher, Europa Editions. Copyright © 2023 by Guzel Yakhina. Translation copyright © 2023 by Polly Gannon.