When I was a ten-year-old book worm and used to kiss the dust jacket pictures of authors as if they were icons, it used to amaze me that these remote people could provoke me to love. - Erica Jong

The Lay of Tsar Ivan Vassilyevich, His Young Oprichnik and the Stouthearted Merchant Kalashnikov



 Hail to thee, all hail, Tsar Ivan Vassilyevich!
Tis of thee our lay we did make, O Tsar!
Aye, of thee, and thy well-liked oprichnik,
And the stouthearted merchant Kalashnikov.
In the ancient manner we made the lay,
To the strains of the psaltery sing it we did,
We intoned it loud and we chanted it,
And all good Christian folk took delight in it.
As for boyar Matvei Romodanovsky,
He to each gave a goblet of foaming mead,
And his lady fair did to us present,
On a silver tray laid out prettily,
A right handsome towel sewn with silken thread.
For three days and three nights in the feast we joined
Sing we did 'thout end, but they clamoured for more

          I

 Nay, 'tis not the sun shining bright in the sky,
With the clouds at its beauty marvelling;
Tis the Tsar at his board seated, proud of mien,
Tsar Ivan Vassilyevich in his crown of gold.
And behind him there stand his serving men,
And before him the boyars and princes sit,
His oprichniks they sit to each side of him.
To the glory of God does the good Tsar feast,
Merry makes the Tsar to his heart's content.

 With a smile does he now bid his serving men
Fill his own gold cup full of rich, sweet wine,
Full of rich, sweet wine from beyond the seas,
And to pass it round to his henchmen bold -
The oprichniks drink and the Tsar they praise.

 One amongst them all, he, a fine, brave youth,
But a wilful one, of unruly heart,
In the golden cup did not wet his lips;
Dark of face he sat, with his head bowed low
And his eyes cast down to the very ground,
Plunged in gloom sat he and in trying thought.

 And the mighty Tsar sorely vexed was he,
Knit his brows he did, and with piercing gaze,
Like the hawk that, grim, from the heights above
Eyes the grey-blue dove, so the youth he eyed.
But the youth sat on, with his head bowed low....
In his wrath the Tsar brought his thick staff down;
With a deafening crash did its iron point
Full it sink and deep in the oaken floor -
Still the youth sat on, not a start gave he.
Then in thunderous tones did the Tsar speak up -
And the youth was roused from his revery.

 "Hark and list, Kiribeyevich, brave my lad,
Is it treacherous thought thou dost harbour, say?
Dost thou envy the Tsar his glory and fame?
Of thy faithful service art weary grown?...
When the moon appears, the bright stars rejoice
That the paths of heaven wax luminous.
But should one amongst them hide its face,
To the shadowed earth it will, flashing, fall....
'Tis not meet for thee, Kiribeyevich,
Thus to scorn thy Tsar and his revelry;
Art thou not a Skuratov man by birth,
In Malyuta's own house and home brought up?..."

 To his Tsar the oprichnik answer made,
'Fore him low, to the very ground, he bowed:

 "Hear me out, my Tsar, hear me out, I pray!
Be not wroth with me, thy unworthy slave!
Wine won't quench the flames of a burning heart,
Gloomy thoughts and dark it will not drive off.
If I vex thee, sire, let thy will be done,
Bid them seize thy slave and his head chop off -
Heavy weighs it, Tsar, on my shoulders broad,
Of itself it bows to the grass-grown earth..."

 Said to him the Tsar, with a laugh said he:
"What is there that grieves one so brave and young?
Is thy silken coat frayed and worn with age?
Is thy sable cap, once so fine, now torn?
Is thy purse, once full, free of jingling coin?
Has thy sword, once sharp, tarnished grown and blunt?
Has thy steed gone lame? Was he poorly shod?
Did a merchant's son knock thee off thy feet
In a fist fight fought on the river bank?"

 Kiribeyevich of the curly locks
Proudly tossed his head as reply he made:

 "Not a merchant's son, nor a boyar's son,
Nay, no man is there that can knock me down;
Fast my good steed runs, never falters he;
Bright as polished glass gleams my sabre sharp;
By thy favour, sire, on a festive day
Boast I do of dress rich as any man's;

 When my steed I mount and go riding him
By the Moskva Stream and beyond as well,
With my silken sash round my waist wound tight
And my velvet cap trimmed with sable fur
On my curly head sitting rakishly,
At their gates appear fair young maids and wives,
By their gates they stand and they gaze at me,
And in whispers soft to each other speak.
Only one of them turns away from me,
With a striped silk veil her dear face she clothes...

 "Search the whole of Russ, this our holy land,
And you'll never find one as fair, O Tsar:
Moves she gracefully as a white-winged swan,
Gentle is her gaze as a sweet young dove's,
Tender is her voice as a nightingale's,
Pink as dawn's first ray in the heavens high,
Bloom the roses two on her fresh young cheeks;
Twined with ribbons gay is her golden hair,
Tightly bound is it into silken plaits.
Down her shoulders, sire, run they playfully
And her bosom white touch caressingly.
Born was she in a merchant's house and home
And is named Alyona Dmitrevna.

 "When I look at her I am not myself:
Strengthless grow my arms, limp they grow and weak,
And my eyes so keen, turn they dark and dim;
Sorrow fills my heart at the fearful thought
That the world alone I must roam, O Tsar.
In my charger swift I delight no more,
Nor in costly garb and in finery,
Little do I care for a well-stuffed purse....
Who is there the gold that is mine to share?
Before whom shall I of my prowess boast?
Tore whose gaze shall I my rich garb display?

 "Give me leave to go to the Volga steppe,
Let me lead the life of a Cossack free.
My hot head will I there in battle lose,
By a Tatar hand 'twill be smitten off,
And the infidels for themselves will they
Take my sabre sharp and my goodly steed
And my saddle rich of Circassian make.
At my eyes the ravens will tear and peck,
On my lonely bones dreary rains will fall,
Without burial will my poor dust be
Blown across the steppe by a gusty wind... ."

 To these words the Tsar with a laugh replied:
"Faithful servant mine, I will soothe thy pain,
To thy aid thy Tsar in thy grief will come.
Take my ruby ring and this necklace take -
Made of pearls is it full a Joy to see;
Find a clever wife for a matchmaker,
And these precious gifts have her bear in haste
To thy lady fair Alyona Dmitrevna:
If she'll have thee, lad, hold a wedding feast;
If she'll have thee not, be not sore of heart."

 Hail to thee, all hail, Tsar Ivan Vassilyevich!
By thy cunning slave thou'rt deceived this day!
Aye, the truth has he from his Tsar withheld.
He has told thee not that his lady fair
Is another's wife, is a merchant's spouse
That in church was she to her husband wed
By our holy rites, by the Christian law.

         * * *

 Drink deep, my lads! Sing out in glee!
Come, lads, tune up the psaltery!
With your ringing music drive away care,
Bring cheer to our host and his lady fair!

            II

 In the market place the young merchant sat,
Tall and handsome Stepan Paramonovich
Of the honest house of Kalashnikov.
His gay silken wares laid he smartly out,
And his moneys he counted carefully,
In soft tones he called to the passers-by.
But 'twas little luck that the merchant had:
By his shop the rich folk they tarried not,
No one glanced within, no one bought his wares.

 In the churches the vesper bells have rung,
O'er the Kremlin domes glow the sun's last rays;
Driven on by a singing, moaning wind,
Grey clouds scurry near and the heavens veil....
The great market place it has emptied fast,
And the merchant Stepan Paramonovich
Shuts behind him the massive oaken door,
Turns the figured key in the foreign lock,
And beside the shop, on an iron chain
His old watchdog, a snarling beast, he leaves.
Then, in thought immersed, off the merchant goes
To his home and wife across Moskva Stream.

 Comes he soon enough to his fine, tall house,
And amazed he looks to all sides of him:
For his fair young wife does not welcome him,
Bare the table stands, with no cloth on it,
Tore the icon a single candle gleams.
Calls he then the aged servant woman:
"Come, speak up and say, Yeremeyevna,
Where's thy mistress gone that I see her not?
Where's my wedded wife, Alyona Dmitrevna?
And my children dear, did they weary grow
Of their noisy games, of their play and sport?
Were they put abed at an early hour?"

 "O my master dear, Stepan Paramonovich,
Tis a full strange thing I will say to thee:
To the vespers went Alyona Dmitrevna;
But the priest and his wife are back from church,
They have lit a candle and at supper sit,
Yet thy lady fair she has not returned....
And the little ones they are not at play,
Nor are they abed and asleep, the dears;
It is wailing they are and sobbing loud,
For their mother crying and calling her."

 By a fearful thought was he visited,
Was the youthful merchant Kalashnikov.
By the window he stood with troubled heart,
At the snow-clad street gazed he fretfully.
It was dark without, and the snow swept down.
And it covered the tracks of the passers-by.

 Of a sudden he hears a door slam shut,
And a hurried step to his ear it comes....
Spins he round, and there - Heaven help us all! -
Stands his fair young wife, white of face she stands,
With her headpiece gone and her plaits untwined
And with hoarfrost powdered and melting snow,
And a look in her eye as of one insane,
And her ashen lips forming soundless words....

"Where hast thou been a'wandering, wife, my wife?
To what courtyard or square didst thou stray, come,
                                               speak,
That thy head is bare and thy plaits undone
And thy clothing torn and in disarray?
From a wanton feast dost thou come this day?
With the boyars' sons hast thou, wife, caroused?
It was not for this we did plight our troth,
It was not for this 'fore the holy shrine
On our wedding morn we exchanged our rings.
Behind oaken doors will I put thee, wife,
With an iron lock I will lock thee fast.
Ne'er the light of day shalt thou see again,
Nay, nor cast a slur on my honest name."
When the poor young wife heard these scathing
                                             words,
Like an aspen leaf she began to shake;
She began to shake and to sob and weep;
Down her cheeks the bitter tears they rolled,
To her knees she sank at her husband's feet.
 "O my lord, my own, O my radiant sun!
Hear me out or else slay me here and now.
Every word thou sayest to thy hapless wife
Is a knife of steel that doth pierce her heart.
Tis not death I fear be it e'er so cruel,
'Tis not idle rumour that frightens me,
'Tis my lord's displeasure I fear to risk.
 "On my way I was from the church this night,
All alone I was when I thought I heard -
Just behind me, mind—someone's footsteps come.
Glanced I round, and, oh, how my knees they shook! -
'Twas a man, my lord, running after me....
O'er my face my veil pulled I close in haste.
But the brazen one caught my hands in his,
In a whisper soft spoke he thus to me:
'Wherefore fearest thou me, my lovely one?
Not a robber am I, not a highwayman
But the Tsar's oprichnik Kiribeyevich,
Of Malyuta's own house and family....'
By these words was I frighted all the more,
My poor head it spun and my sight grew dim....
He embraced me then and he kissed me too,
Hold me close he did, and he whispered thus:
'Speak and tell me, love, what thou wishest for,
Speak and answer me, and it shall be thine!
Is it pearls or gold that thy heart doth crave,
Is't brocade or silk thou wouldst have from me?
I will dress thee, love, like a princess true,
Of our Moscow wives thou'lt the envy be!...
Do not let me die a poor sinner's death,
Do not let my love unrequited stay,
Love me, kiss me, do, ere we part this night!"

 "And he kissed me then, kissed me many times,
Even now, my lord, when I'm safely back
In my husband's house, like a living flame
His cursed kisses burn on my cheeks and brow.
At their gates, I saw, stood the neighbours' wives,
And they gaped at us, and they laughed in scorn....

 "From his grasp at last I did tear myself,
And for home I made at a run, my lord....
In the villain's hands did thy gifts remain,
Both my silken veil and my coverchief.
Me, the blameless one, hath he sorely wronged,
On my honest self hath he brought disgrace....
What wild tales of me will the neighbours spin?
Tore whose eyes shall I dare to show myself?...

 "Pray, protect me, do, from the spiteful-tongued,
At thy faithful wife do not let them jeer!
Whom have I to trust but thy own sweet self
And to whom but thee can I turn for help?
But for thee am I in the world alone,
For my parents dear in the grave they lie,
In the cold, dark grave lie they do, alas!
Of my brothers two, one, the elder, left
For a distant shore and was seen no more,
And the younger, thou knowest, is a child in years,
Aye, a child in years and in wisdom too..."

 It was thus spoke Alyona Dmitrevna,
Bitter tears she wept and her lot bemoaned.

 Then the merchant Stepan Paramonovich
For his younger brothers in haste he sent,
And his brothers they came and they bowed to him,
In this wise they did speak, the two of them:
"At thy bidding we come, elder brother ours;
What misfortune is thine, tell us truthfully,
That we're summoned by thee at an hour so late
Of a frosty night in the wintertime?..."

 "Hear me, brothers mine, and I'll tell you all.
Great mischance this day hath befallen me,
For the Tsar's oprichnik Kiribeyevich
On our honest name hath brought disgrace,
And a true man's heart cannot bear such wrong,
Such offence as this it cannot endure.
On the morrow the first fight is to be,
In the Tsar's own presence, on Moskva Stream....
With the Tsar's oprichnik I'll come to grips,
To the death the rascally knave I'll fight!
And should I be slain, then, my brothers dear,
Come you out in my stead and fight for truth,
Fight for honour and truth and be not afeared!
You are younger than I and of fresher strength,
You have sinned the less, and your souls are pure,
And perchance the Lord will be kind to you."

 And the brothers two in reply they said:
"Where the wind it blows in the heavens high,
There the clouds, obedient, rush in haste.
When the blue-winged eagle with raucous cry
Calls his young to the field where lie the slain,
When he summons them to a gory feast,
At his call they come without dallying.
Thou'rt a father true, brother dear, to us,
'Tis for thee to say and for us to do;
That by thee we'll stand thou canst rest assured."

 Drink deep, my lads! Sing out in glee!
Come, lads, tune up the psaltery!
With your ringing music drive away care,
Bring cheer to our host and his lady fair!

Ill

 Over Moscow the great and golden-domed,  
O'er the Kremlin walls, o'er its white stone walls,
Rises early morn in its crimson robes.
From beyond the hills comes the early morn,
And it steals o'er the housetops playfully,
And it drives off the clouds relentlessly.
Its gold tresses the morn o'er the blue skies spreads,
And its face it bathes in the snows so white,
Like a proud young beauty in a looking glass
It beholds itself in the heavens clear.
Why art thou awake, crimson morn so bright?
Why dost thou rejoice, early morn so fresh?

 From the whole of ancient Moscow-town
Came the fighters bold, came the fighters brave,
For the fisticuffs on the holiday
Gathered they by the frozen Moskva Stream.
And the Tsar himself with his retinue,
His oprichniks all and his boyars came,
And he bade them stretch a long silver chain,
A long silver chain soldered fast with gold,
And to measure off on the river ice
A large open place for the sporting match.
Then the mighty Tsar Ivan Vassilyevich
Bade his heralds call out in ringing tones:
"Come ye forth, brave lads, come ye forth and fight
For to please the good Tsar, our father own!
Come ye forward, do, to the boxing ring;
Him who wins the match the Tsar will reward,
Him who loses it the Lord will forgive!"

'Thout a word Kiribeyevich now stepped forth,
Bowed he low to the Tsar and silently,
From his shoulders his velvet coat he flung,
His right hand on his hip he proudly placed,
With his hand his crimson hat set straight,
Stood he waiting so for a challenger....
Once, and twice, and thrice rang the heralds' cry,
But the fighting men, doughty fellows all,
Only nudged each other and never stirred.

 Round the ring the oprichnik audacious walks,
To his rivals he calls disdainfully:
"Why so timid, ye men, why so thoughtful, say?
With your lives, ne'er you fear, I will let you off,
Give you time I will to repent your sins,
Only let us fight and amuse the Tsar."

 Of a sudden the crowd it silent parts,
And the merchant Stepan Paramonovich
Of the name and house of Kalashnikov
Steps he boldly forth for all eyes to see.
First Stepan Paramonovich bows to the Tsar,
To the Kremlin then and its churches all,
To the Russian folk bows he afterward.
Like a falcon's eyes so his eyes they burn,
On the young oprichnik he rivets them,
And before him his stand takes loftily.
Now, he pulls on his gauntlets, his fighting gloves,
And his mighty shoulders he proudly squares,
And his curly beard strokes he languidly.

 The oprichnik then spoke, and this he said:
"Tell me, valiant youth, of what house thou art
And what name is thine, speak and tell me plain,
For how otherwise will I know, my lad,
Over whom the priests are to chant their prayers,
And how I'm to boast of my victory."

 And Stepan Paramonovich answered thus:
"By the name of Kalashnikov am I known,
Twas an honest man that did father me,
By the Lord's commands have I ever lived:
Never brought disgrace on another's wife,
Never stalked, a thief, in the dark of night,
Never hid myself from the light of day....
Thou hast said a truthful word and just:
Over one of us will the priests they chant,
On the morrow, at noon, and no later, mind,
At a merry feast with his comrades bold,
One of us will boast of his victory.
Not in jest or sport, for the folk to watch,
Do I challenge thee, thou infidel's son,
But to wage a fight to the bitter end!"

 At the merchant's speech, Kiribeyevich
Turned he nigh as grey as the snow of spring,
And his sparkling eye darkened all at once,
Down his mighty back ran a sudden chill,
On his parted lips froze his words, unsaid....

 Now the rivals two, silent, moved apart,
Thout another sound did the fight commence.

Kiribeyevich was the first to strike;
His gloved hand he waved and a crushing blow
Struck the merchant brave on his mighty chest.
And Stepan Paramonovich staggered and reeled;
On his breast there dangled a copper cross
With a relic from holy Kiev-town,
And this cross bit deep into his firm flesh,
And like dew the blood from beneath it dripped.
And he said to himself, said the merchant brave:
"What is fated to be is bound to be;
For the truth will I stand to the very end!"
And he steadied himself as he made to strike,
And he gathered his strength and with all his force
Fetched his hated rival a round-arm blow,
Hit him full he did on the side of the head.

 And the young oprichnik he softly moaned,
And he swayed and dropped to the icy ground,
To the icy ground like a pine he fell,
Like a slender pine in a wintry grove
By an axe cut down at the very roots....
To the ground he fell, and he lay there, dead.
 At this fearful sight was the Christian Tsar
Overcome by a blinding rage and fierce,
And he knit his brows, and he stamped his foot,
And he bade his men seize the merchant bold,
And to bring the knave 'fore his face at once.

 Said the mighty Tsar Ivan Vassilyevich:
"Answer honestly, for I want the truth:
Was't with full intent or against thy will
Thou hast coldly slain my most trusted man,
My oprichnik, my Kiribeyevich?"

 "I will tell thee true, o most righteous Tsar:
With intent have I slain thy trusted man;
But I'll tell thee not wherefore did I this,
To the Lord alone will I this disclose....
Have me put to death; bid me place my head
On the butcher's block for the axe to smite;
But I pray thee, Tsar, to my widowed wife
And my children dear show thou clemency,
To my brothers two be thou merciful."

'"Tis a right good thing, my brave lad and true,
And is well for thee, honest merchantman,
That so truthfully thou hast answered me.
To thy orphans young and thy widowed wife
From my treasury I'll allot a share.
And throughout the length and the breadth, my lad,
Of the Russian realm shall thy brothers two
From this day and on trade 'thout tithe or tax.
As for thee, brave heart, on the block shalt thou
Thy wild head lay down by the Tsar's command;
I will have the blade made keen and sharp,
I will have the headsman wear fine, rich dress,
The great bell for thee will I bid them ring
That all Moscow-town, all the folk might know
That thy Tsar to thee of his goodwill gave..."

To the market square the good townsfolk stream,
The bell's mournful knell o'er it, booming, floats,
Throughout Moscow-town evil tidings spreads.
On high ground the wooden scaffold rears;
In his scarlet blouse with its jeweled links
Does the headsman strut in front of the crowd
And await his victim right merrily.
His axe is well honed and made keen and sharp,
And he rubs his hands in open glee....
And the stouthearted merchant Kalashnikov
Bids his brothers farewell and embraces them.

"O my brothers own, dear are you to me!
Let me hold you close, let us now embrace,
For 'tis soon you and I will forever part....
Bow you low to my wife Alyona Dmitrevna,
Bow you low 'fore the house of our parents dear,
Bow you low to our friends and kinsmen all,
And then pray for me in the holy church,
For your brother pray and his sinful soul!"

And the merchant brave he was put to death,
'Twas a cruel death and a shameful one:
O'er him high the headsman raised his axe,
And his head rolled down from the bloody block.

 Beyond Moskva Stream they buried him,
In the wide, open field where three roads meet:
To Tula, Ryazan and Vladimir towns;
O'er his grave a mound of damp earth they heaped,
And on that they set a maplewood cross,
And the boisterous winds cannot be stilled,
O'er his nameless grave they sing and play.
By the grave the good folk pass they do:
When an old man goes by, he crosses himself;
When a young man goes by, his shoulders he squares;
When a young maid goes by, she heaves a sigh;
When a minstrel goes by, he sings a song.

        * * *

Ho, ye brave lads and true,
The makers of song,
Ye whose voices ring merry and loud and strong!
You began right well, and so end you must;
Sing in praise of the worthy, the honest and just!
     To the freehanded boyar, glory and fame!
     To his lovely lady, glory and fame!
     And to all Christian folk, fame and glory!

                        *****

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