Short StoryWorld Literature

Swans – A Short Story from Russia

Sherzod Komil Khalil, born in Uzbekistan and settled in Russia has shared his short story.

Swans is the story of a person’s failed romance, and his love for nature – the forest and wildlife.   

Sherzod Komil Khalil

Swans  

In the heart of the forest, hidden by dense thickets of bushes, there was a small lake. At times, a light April breeze wrinkled the surface of the water, and then the slowly swaying lake looked like a majestic forest thicket disturbed by the wind.

I arrived in these God-forsaken places of the Hisar region after defending my scientific work at the Institute of Ornithology with the sole purpose of continuing my research of swans. The keeper of the forest, old man Zohir, at first received me very coldly and looked at me with apprehension for a long time. But I showed him a letter of recommendation given to me by the Republican Forestry Department, in which it was written: “It is allowed to conduct bird research in the Hisar forest.” After that, the caretaker got a little kinder and even offered me to stay with him. I gladly accepted his offer.

The very next day, I took my things from the Kitaba city hotel, where I had stayed earlier, and moved in with the old man. Everyone who knew him said that a mute would be a better conversationalist than him. And they were right about something. Every morning, the watchman and I left the house with a backpack and a gun on our backs, wandered through the woods together, only in the evening we returned home very tired. But even though we spent the whole day together, it was difficult to wait for one word from him. He smoked his pipe every now and then, reluctantly answered my questions, and asked almost nothing himself. At first I decided that this taciturnity of the old man was the result of many years of living alone, and this explanation seemed to me quite plausible.

The old man did not know that I came to these parts to study swans. The person responsible for the regional forestry, who brought me to this forest, warned me that the old man begins to behave strangely as soon as he talks about swans, so he advised me not to tell the watchman about my intention to study these birds. Although I did not attach much importance to the words of the responsible person, I still did not dare to immediately inform the old man of my true intention. Therefore, the watchman constantly took me to other birds: then to the eared owls living in the forest thicket, then to the woodpeckers pecking at the pine bark… I didn’t show any interest in these birds.

But one day, when I saw the lake where the Oxu River flowed, and swans swimming there, I could not resist and exclaimed joyfully: “I came here for these birds!”

The old man blushed with rage. His deep-set eyes, peeking out from under already graying eyebrows, flashed at me so angrily that I even recoiled and was completely confused.

“Have those village bums already told you everything?” The old man asked, approaching me.

“I swear I don’t know what you’re talking about!” I replied, trying to stay calm.

– Did you just tell me about me and the swans? His voice sounded increasingly threatening, and he suddenly grabbed me by the collar.

I said again that I didn’t know anything. He looked me straight in the eye for a while, finally, convinced that I really didn’t know anything, he let me go and stepped aside.

For a long time I stood motionless and could not figure out what was going on. The old man’s screams had already scattered the swans. After lighting his pipe, the old man sat down on the shore of the lake. I watched him smoke for a while, put my backpack and rifle next to him and slowly sat down beside him. Without looking at me he said:

– I’m sorry. I thought you were kidding me.

– What happened? I asked curiously. – You got so angry when I started talking about swans.

The old man looked at me sadly and replied:

– When I was young, I did a lot of things.

Now he looked more calm and balanced. And I kept looking at him with surprised eyes, which made the old man seem uncomfortable and, after a while, he began his story:

– This story happened when I was still very young. We lived in a village on the outskirts of the forest. My father was a forester and supported our whole small family: my mother, younger sister and me. We lived very amicably and did not know grief. I have already matured noticeably and turned from a little boy into a young man. Passing by rural courtyards, I noticed how the first beauties of our village cast furtive flirtatious glances at me. Although my father was an ordinary forester, he earned money quite well, in any case, we were reputed to be one of the wealthiest families in the village.

Since my father was not just a forester, but also a skilled marksman, regional officials and even poachers who came from all over the country often visited our house. The whole point was that without my father’s permission, no one could even take a step towards the forest. And in order to hunt in the forest, everyone, from regional officials to visiting poachers, tried to please my father in order to get his permission. Sometimes my father accompanied them on hunting trips, and from time to time he took me with him. Since I grew up with a gun in my hands, at a young age I became the best shooter in our village after my father. Now it seems to me that the rural beauties looked at me for this very reason. Girls have always liked brave guys. But among all these girls, one was special to me. When I confessed my feelings to her, she said she would accept my offer with one condition. Uh-oh, what a beauty she was! I’ve never met anyone like that! She was the daughter of the director of the village school Mutalboy. Oddly enough, in my school years, I did not even know that the director had such a beautiful daughter. I saw her later, by chance, when after entering the university, the girl returned to her native village during the summer holidays. She was walking along the bank of the Oxu with her friends. I was returning from hunting in the forest, carrying my sixteen-caliber rifle on my back. In my hands I had prey –wild geese. Seeing me, the girls were a little confused. I tried to walk past them without paying any attention, but suddenly I heard someone’s voice: “can I look at your prey?” Turning around, I saw an amazingly beautiful girl looking at me with hope. Her hair was jet black and fell from her fragile shoulders, and thick eyebrows accentuated her beautiful black eyes. Believe it or not, the first time I looked at her, I lost my peace. If it were anyone else, I wouldn’t even stop. But to refuse the request of such a beauty was beyond my strength. Therefore, without thinking twice, I stopped and showed the girls the geese.

– Kulfinisa, just look at how beautifully the feathers of this bird shimmer! Poor thing…” one of the girls exclaimed.

– Really, it’s a pity. It was probably one of the most beautiful geese–” Kulfinisa replied. And I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She seemed to notice my gaze and, to distract me, asked:

– Are you are a good hunter?

I, forgetting about modesty, confidently answered:

– Yes, I am the best hunter in these parts.

Hearing this, the girls smiled strangely, and Kulfinisa, frowning, immediately said:

– Are you lying?

I exclaimed:

– Of course I’m not lying!

In confirmation of my words, one of the girls said to Kulfinisa:

– Zohir is really a great hunter.

I looked at her with gratitude, and Kulfinisa, hearing this, timidly asked in a gentle voice:

– Then could you help me with one thing?

The girl, like a magnet, pulled me closer and closer to her, and I, without noticing it, blurted out:

– I’m ready for anything for you!

From my so frank answer, one of the girls grinned. I was immediately embarrassed. Kulfinisa seemed to notice my embarrassment and gently nudged her grinning friend in the side. But no matter how hard she tried to hide it, I saw everything. To get out of an awkward situation, I added:

– What exactly do you need help with?

Now Kulfinisa was a little embarrassed and answered quietly:

– I’ll tell you later.

Such a response from Kulfinisa gave me hope for an early meeting. I said goodbye to the girls. I walked without turning around, and for a long time I felt their eyes on me.

From that very day, Kulfinisa did not leave my mind. After asking my friends about her, I found out that she was the daughter of the director of the village school Mutalboy, studied birds at the university at the Faculty of ornithology.

All week long I couldn’t wait for our meeting and finally, at the end of August, I managed to see her again. More precisely, she herself conveyed through my sister that she would like to see me. We agreed to meet on the bank of the Oxu. In order to look more impressive in front of the girl, I deliberately hung my rifle behind my back and tied a white ribbon around my head, like a real hunter. When I saw Kulfinisa on the river bank, I felt my heart begin to beat faster. I knew she wanted to tell me something. And I had something to tell her. As I approached her, I firmly decided that I would confess my feelings to the girl.

A light summer breeze played in her hair, and it seemed to me that she became even more beautiful. When she saw me, she blushed deeply, but immediately pulled herself together and smiled gently. At that very moment, I realized how much I was in love with her.

“I hope I haven’t kept you waiting long.” – saying this, I felt like my heart was bursting out of my chest. And she replied:

– No, Zohir, rather, I’m taking up so much of your time.

She was so attractive that I had the feeling that the earth was literally falling out from under my feet. I wanted so much to confess everything to her as soon as possible! But first I decided to find out what exactly the girl wanted from me.

“Kulfinisa–” I began quietly, “you said you wanted to tell me something. That’s not the only reason I came here. In fact, I also have something to tell you.

She looked at me in silence for a while, and then suddenly asked:

– Zohir, shoot me a swan. You’re a very good marksman…

Although I was extremely surprised by such a sudden request, I tried not to show it and answered her:

– OK. However, I have never shot such birds before. But since you’re asking, I can’t refuse in any way. But why do you need a swan?

The girl, a little embarrassed, tried to explain everything:

– I’ll take the swan to the university. There are a lot of stuffed birds in the museum of the Ornithology faculty where I study, but there is no stuffed swan. Our teacher asked us to bring birds from the house, which are not stuffed in the university museum. I told him that swans live in the Hisar forest, located not far from our village, and promised to bring one bird. My friends praised you, saying that you are a great shooter, so I thought you could help me.

– Are swans being stuffed? I asked anxiously.

“Yes–” she answered quietly– “can you help me?”

After a little thought, I agreed. Then Kulfinisa announced that she was going back to the city tomorrow, as her studies at the university would begin soon.

– When will you return to our village? I asked.

“In the winter, when the fall semester ends–” she replied.

“I promise you to catch a swan before winter,” I said. – If I manage to catch him alive, I will keep him in a cage until you return. If not, I’ll have to shoot him.

After that, Kulfinisa made it clear that she would already like to say goodbye to me:

– Okay, Zohir, then see you later.

I haven’t confessed my feelings to her yet! Instead I answered timidly:

– Goodbye.

Saying goodbye, the girl slowly walked away from the shore. The wind blew her light linen dress and long dark hair. At that moment, something snapped inside me. I could hardly breathe and thought that if I didn’t confess to her at the same moment, I would just die. Summoning all my willpower, I shouted:

She turned around and looked at me. I ran to her. Then, stopping, she asked:

There was genuine surprise in her voice.

“I’d like to tell you something,” I mumbled in a trembling voice, and she looked at me from under her long eyelashes.

– Kulfinisa, I … uh… I…– – my tongue was slurring, – I like you!

From embarrassment, the girl could not take her eyes off the ground. We were both silent for a while. I don’t know how she felt, but my insides were shaking with excitement. I looked at her, full of hope. Finally she told me:

– OK, Zohir, I’ll think about it and give you an answer. In the meantime, you catch me a swan.

After that, she said goodbye and left. And while she was walking away with quick steps, he looked after her and breathed heavily. After this meeting, I did not see Kulfinisa again until winter. And all this time I was busy with only one thing: at all costs I needed to catch a swan. It turned out it wasn’t as easy as I first thought. At first, having set nets on the shore, he tried to lure swans into them with food. I really wanted to give Kulfinisa a live swan. For some reason, it seemed to me that if I gave her a live swan, she would reciprocate my feelings. But the swans were very smart. They paid no attention to the food intended for them. Only wild geese and yellow marsh sparrows fell into my trap. And although I tried to catch a swan in this way for about a month and a half, I never succeeded. Swans got their food mainly in the lake. I completely dropped my hands. And time was already running out. Finally, I realized that in order to catch a live swan, I need to act differently.

It was October, and it was already noticeably colder. I decided that I needed to hide in the lake. When the swans arrive, I can quickly grab one of them by their wings. Naturally, the water in the lake was very cold. But what can I do, I had to fulfill my promise. Having determined in which part of the lake swans most often gather, I stripped naked, dived into the water and sat there for hours, waiting for the birds. I breathed in the water through a reed. It seemed to me that from daily diving I even began to get used to cold water. But no matter how hard I tried, none of my attempts were successful. Swans turned out to be very sensitive birds. They sensed from afar that there was danger in the water, and did not even approach the place where I was waiting. When I tried to swim up to them underwater, they immediately flew away.

No one knew that I swim in icy water every day: neither my father, nor my mother, nor even my little sister, to whom I trusted all my secrets. And of course, from constantly sitting in cold water, I caught a bad cold. One day, when I woke up, I found that I had a high fever. My attempt to get up was unsuccessful, and I realized that in such a state I could not even get up from my seat, let alone swim in the lake. In short, I became very ill. There was no way they could cure me at home, and in the end my father took me to the Kitaba City Hospital. The doctor said that I had an extremely severe form of cold. I was in the hospital for almost a whole month. All this time I was thinking only about Kulfinisa and the promise I made to her. There was very little time left before her return.

Two days after being discharged from the hospital, despite the dissatisfaction of my parents, I took my rifle again and went to the forest, to the lake. I thought that if I can’t catch a swan alive, then I’ll have to shoot one of the birds. I hid behind the already almost bare bushes and began to aim. But just as I was about to pull the trigger, someone suddenly grabbed my shoulder. Turning around, I saw my father.

“How dare you shoot swans, you heartless one! Is that what I taught you?

My father was very angry.

– Father, I… – I couldn’t find the words to somehow justify myself.

– I’m not your father anymore! – He snapped and walked away from me.

I loved my father very much. He had never talked to me like that before. I realized that I had offended him greatly, and this made my heart heavy.

– Father, forgive me! I said pleadingly. He stared at me for a while and finally asked:

“Why did you have to shoot them?”

I decided to confess to him and told him everything. The father listened and then said:

“Why didn’t you tell me before?” You have no idea how worried your mother and I were about you when you got sick.

Still not finding the right words, I mumbled:

“Father, I’m sorry.

– The fact that you fell in love with the daughter of the headmaster does not give you the right to shoot swans.

“I’ll only kill one swan,” I tried to justify myself.

After these words, the father was silent for a long time. He looked at me from time to time, and I could still see the angry gleam in his eyes. Finally, he said:

– Zohir, son, don’t you know that you can’t kill swans? If you shoot one swan, then you will destroy its pair. They say that swans are the most faithful creatures on Earth. If something happens to one swan, then the second one will not find another pair. And the swan left without a pair will soon also die. Do you understand that?

– Yes, I understand– – I replied.

My father looked at me incredulously and said:

– Go home.

Then, without even looking at me, he left along a narrow path deep into the forest. And I stood and watched him go until he completely disappeared from sight. After this conversation, I could not decide to shoot the swan. Now, thinking about it, I can’t say exactly what the reason was for that: whether it was my father’s anger, or pity for the swans.

Until Kulfinisa’s return, I came to the forest every day, intending to kill a swan, but every time I changed my mind. When I finally gathered my courage and firmly decided that I would shoot one swan, a thought suddenly occurred to me. Suppose I kill a swan, but how am I going to keep a dead bird until Kulfinisa returns? I didn’t know how to make stuffed animals, but I knew perfectly well what a terrible stench the corpses of animals made after a while.

Then I decided this way: when Kulfinisa arrives, I will call her into the forest and shoot a swan right in front of her. Many times I have considered this idea. This picture stood clearly before my eyes. Winter, a forest covered with white snow. Kulfinisa and I wander through snowdrifts, finally we come to the lake. In front of her, I shoot a swan with my rifle, then I take the bird out of the water and give it to her, and Kulfinisa rejoices like a child. After that, I propose, and she blushes with embarrassment and can’t look up at me.

We are returning home from the forest, Kulfinisa is holding on to the sleeve of my coat. On the way, I look at her, and she, confused, still can’t look at me.

The next day, my father goes to her parents to woo. Our wedding takes place in the summer. We live very happily and every day we walk on the shore of a forest lake where swans live. I tell Kulfinisa to tell her museologists that it is not necessary to kill swans and stuff them, it is better to just come to our forest and admire these beautiful birds here.

Before Kulfinisa returned, I lived these dreams. The winter I’ve been waiting for has finally arrived. The forest is already empty, the water in the lake is frozen, and the shores are covered with snow. The day before the New Year, I found out that Kulfinisa had returned home. My sister informed me that the girl would like to meet me. Hearing this, my father gave me permission.

My sister said that Kulfinisa had made an appointment on the shore of the lake. Everything seemed to be going exactly as I dreamed. I put on my coat, the sleeve of which Kulfinisa had to hold on to on the way home. As usual, I hung my rifle on my back. On the way to the forest, I walked past the banks of the already frozen Oxu River, crossed a slippery bridge. Once dense thickets of bushes now stood alone by the forest paths. When I came to the forest, I went straight to the lake.

The crows sitting on the branches of forest pines, seeing me, immediately scattered in different directions, and the branches, stirred by their sudden movement, sprinkled me with snow. I thought that Kulfinisa had not come yet, I even began to worry about how she would get to the lake through all these snowdrifts. But after a while, I realized that there was no reason to worry. I saw human footprints on the path leading to the lake. These footprints were clearly visible in the snow, but, what was strange, they were the footprints of not one, but two people. I decided that Kulfinisa, of course, did not come here alone, because a girl should not walk alone in the forest in such weather. If only she didn’t come here with her father, in that case, I wouldn’t be able to realize everything I dreamed of. If she came with some friend, then it’s okay, I’ll think of something so that she leaves us alone. Absorbed in these thoughts, I did not even notice how I approached the lake. From a distance of some 30-40 meters, I saw a very unexpected picture. Honestly, I’d rather be blind then than see it! Some mustachioed guy, who looked a little older than me, stood with his arms around my Kulfinisa and kissed her right on the lips! They were so engrossed that they didn’t even notice me. I was trembling all over, my legs began to give way. For a long time they stood, kissing, then finally they saw me. Kulfinisa blushed a little from embarrassment and broke away from the arms of the mustachioed guy.

– Oh, Zohir, are you already here? “What is it?” she asked ingratiatingly.

And I looked at her in silence, without taking my eyes off her. Here the mustachioed guy, also a little embarrassed, said:

– And here is our hunter! Well, come on, come on! Kulfinisa told me about you. You probably have already prepared a stuffed swan for us a long time ago?

– Shut up, you scoundrel. Who are you anyway? I asked viciously.

He was taken aback by my rude question. Kulfinisa answered me for him:

– Zohir, this is my classmate. Don’t talk to him like that! He came here to see the swans and their habitat.

The blood was just boiling inside me. A bitter sense of humiliation began to take hold of me. Now I don’t remember how I grabbed my rifle, all I remember are the screams of Kulfinisa:

But I was deaf and blind with anger. Seeing my gun, the mustachioed guy was confused, and then rushed to run without looking back. So first I shot him, and then I shot Kulfinisa. Both fell after the first shot. It happened so fast that I didn’t even have time to realize what I had done. From the sound of gunshots, all the birds in the lake scattered. I barely noticed that there were swans among them. Everything was covered in blood. I threw the gun aside and ran to where Kulfinisa was lying. She was covered in blood, her eyes were filled with tears, but she couldn’t say anything. I fell on my knees beside her, kissed her tender hands and cried.

– Why did you do that, Kulfinisa, why? I asked through tears.

She tried to answer me something, but she couldn’t say a word. A little later, she froze lifelessly with her eyes open. Tears streamed from my eyes and dripped onto her cold but still beautiful face. I don’t know how long I sat there beside her. I just remember closing her eyes when I left. At this time, the thought that swans never cheat flashed through my head. I didn’t even look at the mustachioed guy, he probably died instantly.

When I got home, I immediately told my father that I had killed people in the forest. His eyes widened in horror. He immediately took my gun away from me and began to beat me with all his might. My mother and sister were moaning with grief and sobbing, and I was out of my mind. Soon the whole village learned about the tragedy in the forest. The principal of the Mutalboy School did everything possible to ensure that I was sentenced to death. I didn’t care anymore. But for some reason the court did not impose the death penalty on me. For sure, my father turned for help to his familiar officials who came to visit us, and saved us from death.

I was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison. I served the whole sentence, I managed to get out of there alive.

After finishing his story, old Zohir looked at me, his eyes were full of sadness and regret.

– It’s getting late, let’s get out of here. But if you really came here to study swans, come here more often. Following him, I asked:

– How did you get hired after such a criminal record?

The old man looked at me in surprise and answered the question with a question:

– Who will go to work as a forest watchman now?

I understood what the old man meant, and silently continued our way.

_____________________

Sherzod Komil Khalil - Sindh CourierSherzod Komil Khalil was born on 13th September in 1982 in Kitab district, Kashkadarya region of Uzbekistan. He studied at Uzbekistan National University for Bachelor of philosophy from 1999 to 2003. He gained a master degree in Modern philosophy and history of the West from 2003 to 2005. He also studied for Higher Literature Course. In 2016, his book “Ileft Poetry” was published in the United States. His works have been published in more than twenty languages. Sherzod Kamil Khalil is eminent among young writers of Central Asian literature. He currently lives in the Writers’ Town in Peredelkino, Moscow. He is a freelance writer.

[Story has been translated from Russian by Holder Volcano]

 

 

 

 

 

 

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