“My world was tiny, and it was awful. I closed my eyes so as not to see it, and pressed myself tight into the ground that lay beneath me in soothing dumbness. This trampled earth in no way resembled real life, waiting for exams in real life. Somewhere far away Woe rode across it on a great steed, but the noise of the hoofbeats grew weaker and died away, and silence, the bitter silence that sometimes overwhelms children in their sorrow, suddenly deleted the boundary between body and the earth that was moving nowhither. The earth smelled of raw depths, of the tomb, of flowers. I smelled its smell and started crying, unafraid. I was walking along an unknown street set on either side with white boxes, walking in a getup of bloodstained feathers, alone between the pavements swept clean as on Sunday, weeping bitterly, fully and happily as I never wept again in all my life.”
This is from Isaac Babel’s short story, “The Story of My Dovecot.” I first read it at the University of Florida when Marjorie Sandor, my teacher, shared it with our writing class. I had never heard of Babel. I didn’t know Russian history. I didn’t know what a pogrom was either. None of these things, however, kept me from understanding that Babel was an incredibly special writer.
It’s common to read book blurbs that say that a work is heartbreaking or life changing. To me, nine times out of ten these statements don’t add up. “The Story of My Dovecot,” however, has that power. Marjorie, I know, was greatly taken by Babel. You can still see his influence in her stories–the awareness of culture, of legacy, of destiny (read “Wolf” from Agni).
But Babel doesn’t get much attention, so I wanted to bring what I think is his most beautiful story to the internet. If you’ve been looking for the full-text of “Dovecot,” you’ve found it. If you’ve never heard of Babel or the story, I hope you’ll give it a chance. It’s art of the highest caliber–beautiful, sad, and true.
The Story of My Dovecot
To M. Gorky
When I was a kid I longed for a dovecot. Never in all my life have I wanted a thing more. But not till I was nine did father promise the wherewithal to buy the wood to make one and three pairs of pigeons to stock it with. It was then 1904, and I was studying for the entrance exam to the preparatory class of the secondary school at Nikolayev in the Province of Kherson, where my people were at that time living. This province of course no longer exists, and our town has been incorporated in the Odessa Region.
I was only nine, and I was scared stiff of the exams. In both subjects, Russian language and arithmetic, I couldn’t afford to get less than top marks. At our secondary school the numerus clausus was stiff: a mere five percent. So that out of forty boys only two that were Jews could get into the preparatory class. The teachers used to put cunning questions to Jewish boys; no one else was asked such devilish questions. So when father promised to buy the pigeons he demanded top marks with distinction in both subjects. He absolutely tortured me to death. I fell into a state of permanent daydream, into an endless, despairing, childish reverie. I went to the exam deep in this dream, and nevertheless did better than everybody else.
I had a knack for book-learning. Even though they asked cunning questions, the teachers could not rob me of my intelligence and my avid memory. I was good at learning and got top marks in both subjects. But then everything went wrong. Khariton Efrussi, the corn-dealer who exported wheat to Marseille, slipped someone a 500-rouble bribe. My mark was changed from A to A-, and Efrussi Junior went to the secondary school instead of me. Father took it very badly. From the time I was six he had been cramming me with every scrap of learning he could, and that A- drove him to despair. He wanted to beat Efrussi up, or at least bribe two longshoremen to beat Efrussi up, but mother talked him out of the idea, and I started studying for the second exam the following year, the one for the lowest class. Behind my back my people got the teacher to take me in one year through the preparatory and first year courses simultaneously, and conscious of the family’s despair, I got three whole books by heart. These were Smirnovsky’s Russian Grammar, Yevtushevsky’s Problems, and Putsykovich’s Manual of Early Russian History. Children no longer cram from these books, but I learned them by heart line upon line, and the following year in the Russian exam Karavayev gave me an unrivaled A+.
This Karavayev was a red-faced, irritable fellow, a graduate of Moscow University. He was hardly more than thirty. Crimson glowed in his manly cheeks as it does in the cheeks of peasant children. A wart sat perched on one cheek, and from it there sprouted a tuft of ash-colored cat’s whiskers. At the exam, besides Karavayev, there was the Assistance Curator Pyatnitsky, who was reckoned a big noise in the school and throughout the province. When the Assistant Curator asked me about Peter the Great a feeling of complete oblivion came over me, an awareness that the end was near: an abyss seemed to yawn before me, an arid abyss lined with exultation and despair.
About Peter the Great I knew things by heart from Putsykovich’s book and Pushkin’s verses. Sobbing, I recited these verses, while the faces before me suddenly turned upside down, were shuffled as a pack of cards is shuffled. This card-shuffling went on, and meanwhile, shivering, jerking my back straight, galloping headlong, I was shouting Pushkin’s stanzas at the top of my voice. On and on I yelled them, and no one broke into my crazy mouthings. Through a crimson blindness, through the sense of absolute freedom that had filled me, I was aware of nothing buy Pyatnitsky’s old face with its silver-touched beard bent toward me. He didn’t interrupt me, and merely said to Karavayev, who was rejoicing for my sake and Pushkin’s:
“What a people,” the old man whispered, “those little Jews of yours! There’s a devil in them!”
And when at last I could shout no more, he said:
“Very well, run along, my little friend.”
I went out from the classroom into the corridor, and there, leaning against a wall that needed a coat of whitewash, I began to awake from my trance. About me Russian boys were playing, the school bell hung not far away above the stairs, the caretaker was snoozing on a chair with a broken seat. I looked at the caretaker, and gradually woke up. Boys were creeping toward me from all sides. They wanted to give me a jab, or perhaps just have a game, but Pyatnitsky suddenly loomed up in the corridor. As he passed me he halted for a moment, the frock coat flowing down his back in a slow heavy wave. I discerned embarrassment in that large, fleshy, upper-class back, and got closer to the old man.
“Children,” he said to the boys, “don’t touch this lad.” And he laid a fat hand tenderly on my shoulder.
“My little friend,” he went on, turning me towards him, “tell your father that you are admitted to the first class.”
On his chest a great star flashed, and decorations jingled in his lapel. His great black uniformed body started to move away on its stiff legs. Hemmed in by the shadowy walls, moving between them as a barge moves through a deep canal, it disappeared in the doorway of the headmaster’s study. The little servingman took in a tray of tea, clinking solemnly, and I ran home to the shop.
In the shop, a peasant customer, tortured by doubt, sat scratching himself. When he saw me my father stopped trying to help the peasant make up his mind, and without a moment’s hesitation believed everything I had to say. Calling to the assistant to start shutting up shop, he dashed out into Cathedral Street to buy me a school cap with a badge on it. My poor mother had her work cut out getting me away from the crazy fellow. She was pale at the moment, she was experiencing destiny. She kept smoothing me, and pushing me away as though she hated me. She said there was always a notice in the paper about those who had been admitted to the school, and that God would punish us, and that folk would laugh at us if we bought a school cap too soon. My mother was pale; she was experiencing destiny through my eyes. She looked at me with bitter compassion as one might look at a little cripple boy, because she alone knew what a family ours was for misfortunes.
All the men in our family were trusting by nature, and quick to ill-considered actions. We were unlucky in everything we undertook. My grandfather had been a rabbi somewhere in the Belaya Tserkov region. He had been thrown out for blasphemy, and for another forty years he lived noisily and sparsely, teaching foreign languages. In his eightieth year he started going off his head. My Uncle Leo, my father’s brother, had studied at the Talmudic Academy in Volozhin. In 1892 he ran away to avoid doing military service, eloping with the daughter of someone serving in the commissariat in the Kiev military district. Uncle Leo took this woman to California, to Los Angeles, and there he abandoned her, and died in a house of ill fame among Negroes and Malays. After his death, the American police sent us a heritage from Los Angeles, a large trunk bound with brown iron hoops. In this trunk there were dumbbells, locks of women’s hair, uncle’s talith, horsewhips with gilt handles, scented tea in boxes trimmed with imitation pearls. Of all the family there remained only crazy Uncle Simon-Wolf, who lived in Odessa, my father, and I. But my father had faith in people, and he used to put them off with the transports of first love. People could not forgive him for this, and used to play him false. So my father believed that his life was guided by an evil fate, and inexplicable being that pursued him, a being in every respect unlike him. And so I alone of all our family was left to my mother. Like all Jews, I was short, weakly, and had headaches from studying. My mother saw all this. She had never been dazzled by her husband’s pauper pride, by his incomprehensible belief that our family would one day be richer and more powerful than all others on earth. She desired no success for us, was scared of buying a school jacket too soon, and all she would consent to was that I should have my photo taken.
On September 20, 1905, a list of those admitted to the first class was hung up at the school. In the list my name figured too. All our kith and kin kept going to look at this paper, and even Shoyl, my granduncle, went along. I loved that boastful old man, for he sold fish at the market. His fat hands were moist, covered with fish-scales, and smelt of worlds chill and beautiful. Shoyl also differed from ordinary folk in the lying stories he used to tell about the Polish Rising of 1861. Years ago Shoyl had been a tavern-keeper at Skvira. He had seen Nicholas I’s soldiers shooting Count Godlevski and other Polish insurgents. But perhaps he hadn’t. Now I know that Shoyl was just an old ignoramus and a simple-minded liar, but his cock-and-bull stories I have never forgotten: they were good stories. Well, now, even silly old Shoyl went along to the school to read the list with my name on it, and that evening he danced and pranced at our pauper ball.
My father got up at the ball to celebrate my success, and asked all his pals—grain dealers, real-estate brokers, and the traveling salesmen who sold agricultural machinery in our parts. These salesmen would sell a machine to anyone. Peasants and landowners went in fear of them: you couldn’t break loose without buying something or other. Of all Jews, salesmen are the widest-awake and the jolliest. At our party they sang Hasidic songs consisting of three words only but which took an awful long time to sing, songs performed with endless comical intonations. The beauty of these intonations may only be recognized by those who have had the good fortune to spend Passover with the Hasidim or who have visited their noisy Volhynian synagogues. Besides the salesmen, old Lieberman who had taught me the Torah and ancient Hebrew honored us with his presence. In our circle he was known as Monsieur Lieberman. He drank more Bessarabian wine than he should have. The ends of the traditional silk tassels poked out from beneath his waistcoat, and in ancient Hebrew he proposed my health. In this toast the old man congratulated my parents and said that I had vanquished all my foes in single combat: I had vanquished the Russian boys with their fat cheeks, and I had vanquished the sons of our own vulgar parvenus. So too in ancient times David King of Judah had overcome Goliath, and just as I had triumphed over Goliath, so too would our people by the strength of their intellect conquer the foes who had encircled us and were thirsting for our blood. Monsieur Lieberman started to weep as he said this, drank more wine as he wept, and shouted “Vivat!” The guests formed a circle and danced an old-fashioned quadrille with him in the middle, just as at a wedding in a little Jewish town. Everyone was happy at our ball. Even mother took a sip of vodka, though she neither liked the stuff nor understood how anyone else could—because of this she considered all Russians cracked, and just couldn’t imagine how women managed with Russian husbands.
But our happy days came later. For mother they came when of a morning, before I set off for school, she would start making sandwiches; when we went shopping to buy my school things—pencil box, money box, satchel, new books in cardboard bindings, and exercise books in shiny covers. No one in the world has a keener feeling of new things than children have. Children shudder at the smell of newness as a dog does when it scents a hare, experiencing the madness which later, when we grow up, is called inspiration. And mother acquired this pure and childish sense of the ownership of new things. It took us a whole month to get used to the pencil box, to the morning twilight as I drank my tea on the corner of the large, brightly-lit table and packed my books in my satchel. It took us a month to grow accustomed to our happiness, and it was only after the first half-term that I remembered about the pigeons.
I had everything ready for them: one rouble fifty and a dovecot made from a box by Grandfather Shoyl, as we called him. The dovecot was painted brown. It had nests for twelve pairs of pigeons, carved strips on the roof, and a special grating that I had devised to facilitate the capture of strange birds. All was in readiness. On Sunday, October 20, I set out for the bird market, but unexpected obstacles arose in my path.
The events I am relating, that is to say my admission to the first class at secondary school, occurred in the autumn of 1905. The Emperor Nicholas was then bestowing a constitution on Russian people. Orators in shabby overcoats were clambering onto tall curbstones and haranguing the people. At night shots had been heard in the streets, and so mother didn’t want me to go to the bird market. From early morning on October 20 the boys next door were flying a kite right by the police station, and our water carrier, abandoning all his buckets, was waking about the streets with a red face and brilliantined hair. Then we saw baker Kalistov’s sons drag a leather vaulting-horse out into the street and start doing gym in the middle of the roadway. No one tried to stop them: Semernikov the policeman even kept inciting them to jump higher. Smernikov was girt with a silk belt his wife had made him, and his boots had been polished that day as they had never been polished before. Out of customary uniform, the policeman frightened my mother more than anything else. Because of him she didn’t want me to go out, but I sneaked out by the back way and ran to the bird market, which in our town was behind the station.
At the bird market Ivan Nikodimych, the pigeon fancier, sat in his customary place. Apart from the pigeons, he had rabbits for sale too, and a peacock. The peacock, spreading its tail, sat on a perch moving a passionless head from side to side. To its paw was tied a twisted cord, and the other end of the cord was caught beneath one leg of Ian Nikodimych’s wicker chair. The moment I got there I bought from the old man a pair of cherry-colored pigeons with luscious tousled tails, and a pair of crowned pigeons, and put them away in a bag on my chest under my shirt. After these purchases I had only forty copecks left, and for this price the old man was not prepared to let me have a male and female pigeon of the Kryukov breed. What I liked about Kryukov pigeons was their short, knobbly, good-natured beaks. Forty copecks was the proper price, but the fancier insisted on haggling, averting from me a yellow face scorched by the unsociable passions of bird-snarers. At the end of our bargaining, seeing that there were no other customers, Ivan Nikodimych beckoned me closer. All went as I wished, and all went badly.
Toward twelve o’clock, or perhaps a bit later, a man in felt boots passed across the square. He was stepping lightly on swollen feet, and in his worn-out face lively eyes glittered.
“Ivan Nikodimych,” he said, as he walked past the bird-fancier, “pack up your gear. In town the Jerusalem aristocrats are being granted a constitution. On Fish Street Grandfather Babel has been constitutioned to death.”
He said this and walked lightly on between the cages like a barefoot ploughman walking along the edge of a field.
“They shouldn’t,” murmured Ivan Nikodimych in his wake. “They shouldn’t!” he cried more sternly. He started collecting his rabbits and his peacock, and shoved the Kryukov pigeons at me for forty copecks. I hid them in my bosom and watched the people running away from the bird market. The peacock on Ivan Nikodimych’s shoulder was last of all to depart. It sat there like the sun in a raw autumnal sky; it sat as July sits on a pink riverbed, a white-hot July in the long cool grass. No one was left in the market, and not far off shots were rattling. Then I ran to the station, cut across a square that had gone topsy-turvy, and flew down an empty lane of trampled yellow earth. At the end of the lane, in a little wheeled armchair, sat the legless Makarenko, who rode about town in his wheel-chair selling cigarettes from a tray. The boys in our street used to buy smokes from him, children loved him, I dashed toward him down the lane.
“Makarenko,” I gasped, panting from my run and I stroked the legless one’s shoulder, “have you seen Shoyl?”
The cripple did not reply. A light seemed to be shining through his coarse face built up of red fat, clenched fists, chunks of iron. He was fidgeting on his chair in his excitement, while his wife Kate, presenting a wadded behind, was sorting out some things scattered on the ground.
“How far have you counted?” asked the legless man, and moved his whole bulk away from the woman, as though aware in advance that her answer would be unbearable.
“Fourteen pair of leggings,” said Kate, still bending over, “six undersheets. Now I’m a-counting the bonnets.”
“Bonnets!” cried Makarenko, with a choking sound like a sob, “it’s clear, Catherine, that God has picked on me, that I must answer for all. People are carting off whole rolls of cloth, people have everything they should, and we’re stuck with bonnets.”
And indeed a woman with a beautiful burning face ran pas us down the lane. She was clutching an armful of fezzes in on arm and a piece of cloth in the other, and in a voice of joyful despair, she was yelling for her children who had strayed. A silk dress and a blue blouse fluttered after her as she flew, and she paid no attention to Makarenko who was rolling his chair in pursuit of her. The legless man couldn’t catch up. His wheels clattered as he turned the handles for all he was worth.
“Little lady,” he cried in a deafening voice, “where did you get that striped stuff?”
But the woman with the fluttering dress was gone. Round the corner to meet her leaped a rickety cart in which a peasant lad stood upright.
“Where’ve they all run to?” asked the lad, raising a red rein above the nags jerking in their collars.
“Everybody’s on Cathedral Street,” said Makarenko pleadingly, “everybody’s there, sonny. Anything you happen to pick up, bring it along to me. I’ll give you a good price.”
The lad bent down over the front of the cart and whipped up his piebald nags. Tossing their filthy croups like calves, the horses shot off at a gallop. The yellow lane was once more yellow and empty. Then the legless man turned his quenched eyes upon me.
“God’s picked on me, I reckon,” he said lifelessly, “I’m a son of man, I reckon.”
And he stretched a hand spotted with leprosy toward me.
“What’s that you’ve got in your sack?” he demanded, and took the bag that had been warming my heart.
With his fat hand the crippled fumbled among the tumbler pigeons and dragged to light a cherry-colored she-bird. Jerking back its feet, the bird lay still in his palm.
“Pigeons,” said Makarenko, and squeaking his wheels he rode right up to me. “Damned pigeons,” he repeated, and struck me on the cheek.
He dealt me a flying blow with the hand that was clutching the bird. Kate’s wadded back seemed to turn upside down, and I fell to the ground in my new overcoat.
“Their spawn must be wiped out,” said Kate, straightening up over the bonnets. “I can’t a-bear their spawn, nor their stinking menfolk.”
She said more things about our spawn, but I heard nothing of it. I lay on the ground, and the guts of the crushed bird trickled down from my temple. They flowed down my cheek, winding this way and that, splashing, blinding me. The tender pigeon-guts slid down over my forehead, and I closed my solitary unstopped-up eye so as not to see the world that spread out before me. This world was tiny, and it was awful. A stone lay just before my eyes, a little stone so chipped as to resemble the face of an old woman with a large jaw. A piece of string lay not far away, and a bunch of feathers that still breathed. My world was tiny, and it was awful. I closed my eyes so as not to see it, and pressed myself tight into the ground that lay beneath me in soothing dumbness. This trampled earth in no way resembled real life, waiting for exams in real life. Somewhere far away Woe rode across it on a great steed, but the noise of the hoofbeats grew weaker and died away, and silence, the bitter silence that sometimes overwhelms children in their sorrow, suddenly deleted the boundary between body and the earth that was moving nowhither. The earth smelled of raw depths, of the tomb, of flowers. I smelled its smell and started crying, unafraid. I was walking along an unknown street set on either side with white boxes, walking in a getup of bloodstained feathers, alone between the pavements swept clean as on Sunday, weeping bitterly, fully and happily as I never wept again in all my life. Wires that had grown white hummed above my head, a watchdog trotted on in front, in the lane on one side a young peasant in a waistcoat was smashing a window frame in the house of Khariton Efrussi. He was smashing it with a wooden mallet, striking out with his whole body. Sighing, he smiled all around the amiable grin of drunkenness, sweat, and spiritual power. The whole street was filled with a splitting, a snapping, the song of flying wood. The peasant’s whole existence consisted in bending over, sweating, shouting queer words in some unknown, non-Russian language. He shouted the words and sang, shot out his blue eyes; till in the street there appeared a procession bearing the Cross and moving from the Municipal Building. Old men bore aloft the portrait of the neatly-combed Tsar, banners with graveyard saints swayed above their heads, inflamed old women flew on in front. Seeing the procession, the peasant pressed his mallet to his chest and dashed off in pursuit of the banners, while I, waiting till the tail-end of the procession had passed, made my furtive way home. The house was empty. Its white doors were open, the grass by the dovecot had been trampled down. Only Kuzma was still in the yard, Kuzma the yardman was sitting in the shed laying out the dead Shoyl.
“The wind bears you about like an evil wood-chip,” said the old man when he saw me. “You’ve been away ages. And now look what they’ve done to granddad.”
Kuzma wheezed, turned away from me, and started pulling a fish out of a rent in grandfather’s trousers. Two pike perch had been stuck into grandfather: one in to the rent in his trousers, the other into his mouth. And while grandfather was dead, one of the fish was still alive, and struggling.
“They’ve done grandfather in, but nobody else,” said Kuzma, tossing the fish to the cat. “He cursed them all good and proper, a wonderful damning and blasting it was. You might fetch a couple of pennies to put on his eyes.”
But then, at ten years of age, I didn’t know what need the dead had of pennies.
“Kuzma,” I whispered, “save us.”
And I went over to the yardman, hugged his crooked old back with its one shoulder higher than the other, and over this back I saw grandfather. Shoyl lay in the sawdust, his chest squashed in, his beard twisted upwards, battered shoes on his bare feet. His feet, thrown wide apart, were dirty, lilac-colored, dead. Kuzma was fussing over him. He tied the dead man’s jaws and kept glancing over the body to see what else he could do. He fussed as though over a newly-purchased garment, and only cooled down when he had given the dead man’s beard a good combing.
“He cursed the lot of ‘em right and left,” he said, smiling, and cast a loving look over the corpse. “If Tartars had crossed his path he’d have sent them packing, but Russians came, and their women with them, Rooski women. Russians just can’t bring themselves to forgive, I know what Rooskis are.”
The yardman spread some more sawdust beneath the body, threw off his carpenter’s apron, and took me by my hand.
“Let’s go to father,” he mumbled, squeezing my hand tighter and tighter. “Your father had been searching for you since morning, sure as fate you was dead.”
And so with Kuzma I went to the home of the tax-inspector, where my parents, escaping the pogrom, had sought refuge.