Maria Krutoholova. Travelers, computer collage, 2020 / Instagram @art_kruto
A tall man walked briskly along the dusty road. A few stones clattered under his feet, and cuckoos or small hawks cawed in the trees. The sun was playing tricks on the traveler and hurrying briskly along. It rolled along the paths, then pushed off and jumped onto the fences. From the fences — to the willows. From the willows to the pointed poplars that were lined up in a monochrome row. The dog followed the trail. Not a single burdock on his tail.
His owner, dressed well, not locally, walked confidently and looked like a real aristocrat. His face was smooth, freshly shaved. His hair was clean and well cut. His body was lively, not exhausted by physical labor.
— Who is it?
Two women stood by the well and kept their eyes on the stranger. They were barefoot, wearing blind headscarves and long, wide skirts that barely covered their equally wide calves.
— Could this be the hermit and sage that people talk about on every corner?
— And where is he going?
— And where is his home?
The woman in the know spread her arms as if inviting to dance:
Her friend shook her head in embarrassment. Silently, she filled the buckets with water and started walking toward the house. For some reason, her chest felt tight, as if her shirt had shrunk in size after soaking in boiling water. The stranger was on her mind. He was significantly different from all the male representatives. From her father, brothers, uncles. No knees as round as a loaf of bread, no black Chumash tan, no heavy tired look that could nail you to the ground.
Instead, he looked free and happy. Not burdened by any doubts or hesitations. I wanted to hug him and listen to everything he had to say. I didn’t care if it was incomprehensible, obscure, intricate, as long as he stopped to visit. He sat down comfortably, stretching out his long slender legs, and said: «Ice is born to melt». Or it could be even more intricate: «Take the top and you will gain the middle».
The traveler was talked about everywhere. At the markets, in the church before the Liturgy began, at the wet or dry cleanup. Men discussed the remarkable mind that was able to hit the mark with advice. They noted that he recites the Bible by heart, but interprets it in his own way, not like a priest. He knows languages. And not just Church Slavonic or a «mixture», but Greek, Latin, and German.я
He knows a lot about good food and wine. In his bag he carries overseas glasses, a pipe with strong tobacco, and a bottle of good wine. He lives an unusual, refined life that not everyone can afford. It does not belong to anyone: neither to his wife, nor to his bootless children, nor to the Creator himself.
Women did not resort to such a complex analysis. They paid more attention to appearance: attentive eyes, a glow that dripped from the face like honey, well-trained muscles, a slender posture, and a smell… It could be broken down into its components: the edge of a buckwheat field, a handful of wild strawberries, and a spoonful of wormwood vermouth. A pinch of saffron and cumin.
The lucky ones who knew him personally noticed that he had the graceful hands of a musician. Narrow palms, long fingers. The fairer gender immediately wanted him to put down his gusla and play something from Handel-Haydn on their backs or hips. A short passage from the neck to the shoulder. That’s why Hryhorii was often seduced.
He was invited to manors, gardens, and mansions. Tables were set, bread was taken out of the ovens, and Tokaj wines and strange-tasting parmesan cheese with notes of dried grapes were ordered from far away places. We had long, winding conversations. They touched upon distant and near lands, moral and physical pleasures. He eagerly supported the conversation, but resolutely denied everything vain. Especially from bodily pleasures, as he had learned the taste of spiritual pleasure. Only once did he fall into the thrall of sensuality, but he managed to control himself in time.
It happened in the village of Valky in the Kharkiv region. Hryhorii was traveling to the east, and when the heat was getting too hot, he stopped at a friend’s place. He settled in an apiary amidst the buzz of busy bees. The houses, protected from the wind, stood with a slope to the south. The air was filled with the sweet flavor of clover and willow tea. On both sides were limp linden rows. It was here, on the farms, that he fell in love, after almost forty-three years.
Olena lived next door. Occasionally he saw her long braid, decorated with tight buds, and her flexible back. A week after his arrival, Olena’s father came to visit and asked the philosopher to give his daughter private lessons. To teach her spiritual poetry and singing. Hryhorii gladly took up the task. It turned out that the girl had a remarkable talent for rhyming and a pleasant voice.
She intoned cleanly, made skillful modulations, moving the melody up and down. They sang a duet willingly, and at this time the clouds paused their daily flow. Birds, molecules of late rain, red, almost rusty butterflies hovered. Later, the song turned into an excited silence. Then — into mutual feelings.
They decided to celebrate the wedding traditionally in the fall, after the Exaltation. Hryhorii listened to his own heart, but it was pounding away. He could not hear any pragmatic reasoning behind the turmoil. Moreover, autumn fell too early, as soon as the Assumption Fast was over. It instantly began to rain and froze. The ground spread out as if someone had disturbed a snake’s nest.
Rotten leaves were floating in deep puddles and looked like cakes overcooked in the oven. The cranes hastily flew away to warmer climes. The barns closed. The first timid smoke rose from the chimneys. Olena was glowing with a happiness she had never experienced before. Hryhorii kept trying on the groom’s scroll, but it was too tight in his shoulders and chest.
There were not many people in the church: all their own. Olena’s mother was crying constantly, as if she had made a mistake. The father looked like a fanatic, because his daughter was going to have a scholarly husband. The singers, as if they were hungry, started singing. The candles burst into a humble flame. The crown scratched his forehead. Hryhorii constantly wanted to stop this interlude. To ask for a delay, a pause, a break. So when the priest asked him in a well-pitched voice whether he was getting married of his own free will, he answered: «No».
Olena turned pale and shook. Her legs felt like cotton wool. The groom publicly apologized and went out onto the church porch. People stared at him with disapproval. A handful of rain fell on his face. Without wiping himself off or hesitating for a second, the man set off on his journey.
Since then he has been traveling without rest. He was always going somewhere, passing through well-fed and hungry villages. Farms, villages, manors. The landscapes were slowly becoming colorless and dull. Dogs barked reluctantly, houses were habitually blackened, and birch trees slept naked. The road did not end. The first snow fell with quicklime. Numerous memories gathered in two-core snowdrifts.
Hryhorii’s homeland was Poltava. The land where a towel was «christened» a utility paper and a tomato was called an eggplant. There, in the days of his grandparents, they made zatyrka (a dish made from flour rolled into small balls and cooked with water or milk) and baked matorzhanyky (a kind of flatbread). Young girls wore richly embroidered shirts, but married women could wear richly embroidered clothes only twice a year: at Christmas and Easter.
The land was flat, as if it had been rolled over with a dough rolling pin. Only here and there were some hills and ridges. Plowed and unplowed fields, gaps, all kinds of grasses. In the gardens, there are white, yellow, and pink sweet potatoes. On the edge, there are sunflowers and corn in good condition. The soil is oily, as if with the addition of lard. For centuries, a hundred rivers traveled along it, hurrying to merge in eternal love with the broad-shouldered handsome Dnipro.
His childhood was no different from that of other children. Pelagei’s mother was kind and simple. She embroidered «white on white» and could not have children for a long time. In order to get pregnant, she borrowed a shirt from a neighbor with many children and kept it on for a week. Her father, Sava Skovoroda, sold homemade vodka and wine. He was also a butcher. His younger brother Vasyl was found only eleven years later.
The house was under a reed roof and had four windows. Under the windows were spicy dahlias, red rue, and marigolds. A little periwinkle, which did not sit still, but always wanted to reach somewhere. The old apple tree, which could no longer bear fruit until the fall, regularly spat green spiky balls. The yard is wide. The crane well was stately, with an open cart resting behind it every evening. A blind door led to cold haylofts and a barn. Further, there were bowls, cast iron, and a generous stove. Next to the stove was a poppy that would be used for cakes closer to the holidays. There were bunches of mint and thyme near the icons.
They lived like everyone else. Sometimes worse, sometimes better. Hryhorii was always humming, and the neighbors listened, leaning on the fences. Later, his father put his son on a cart and set off for Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. Kyiv struck him as a cacophony. It was full of onlookers and pickpockets, horses roaring, wheels screeching, whistles whistling, cats meowing, shoes braking, and deaf bell ringers competing in eloquence.
Hryhorii did not study for long. He stumbled over theology, earned a few blisters from writing, and went to Elizabeth’s Chapel to sing Handel. He lived in the old Winter Palace, crammed Italian and French before going to bed, and wrote prayers in the Italian manner. After two years, he got bored: life became too tedious and predictable. It lacked freedom, beaten paths, Sich churches, apple orchards, four-pane windows, haylofts and barns covered with brown clay.
Turtledoves, woodpeckers, larks, storks, and nightingales. So he quit the chapel and resumed his studies in Mohylianka. He sat at his desk for a month or two, and then he was off again. Budapest, Presburg, Vienna, Venice, Florence. It was good that he knew the languages, so he felt at ease everywhere. He could communicate, listen, and object. After all, a person must tirelessly seek his own good. To do this, he made a stop in Pereiaslav to teach local idiots poetry, but he did not stay long because he did not read the subject the way the clergy wanted.
Pereiaslav made a contradictory impression. The city had character, but also a tendency to all kinds of melancholy. His mood was influenced by the clergy, shopkeepers, and officers, as well as by the ordinary willows, long-necked poplars, and the shallow Trubizh. The sky was too blue with ripples of clouds. An overly noisy market that gathered every Sunday. Narrow, intricate streets. Sleepy squat alleys.
The school breathed modesty and simplicity. It had four classrooms, a lobby, a library, and a cell. The level of teaching was university. The training lasted six years, and the pants were wiped there mainly by the children of the clergy and nobility: about one hundred and thirty people in total. Hryhorii Skovoroda immediately set about creating his own method.
He refused physical punishment and spoke to his students like a father to his own children. He evaluated them not with points, but with conclusions like: «sharp», «very sharp», «intelligent», «quite intelligent», « a bit dumb», «dumb», «very dumb». When the bishop made a few remarks, Hryhorii became angry and began to insist on his own way. So they pointed him to the door, saying, «If you want to remain proud, go away».
The philosopher was poor for a while, living from person to person, even returning to study in Mohylianka. But two years later he went as a tutor to the family of Stepan Tomara, a collegiate counselor and member of the nobility of the Pereiaslav district. He tutored his son Vasyl until he said to the boy’s wrong answer: «My friend, only a pig’s head can think like that». Servants told her mother, and the teacher was fired. Tomara’s wife could not bear that her best son had a monkey mind.
And again — traveling, reflections, doubts. Teaching in Kharkiv, uncertain loneliness, and a long journey to Moscow. In Kyiv, Hryhorii was tempted by monks to take the monastic vow, because it was so honorable to become a pillar of the church and an ornament of the God. Hryhorii noted that there were enough uncut pillars, so he did not want to join their ranks.
The philosopher was constantly invited to teach. Sometimes it was syntax, sometimes a Greek course, sometimes a catechism. He agreed, but everything ended the same way: in conflict. Therefore, over time, he gave up all attempts to fit into this world and lived his own life. He always traveled cheerfully and was happy with everything, because sadness is the most dangerous of all human emotions.
Once a man tired of work sat down with Skovoroda. He complained that he worked hard, but had neither wealth nor satisfaction. Hryhorii did not hesitate:
— «What do you do for a living?
— I’m a tailor.
— And what would you like to be?
— A baker.
— There is such a thing as related work. This is when work is not forced, but at the call of the soul. For one person, it is happiness to grow grapes, for another to sew spare parts, for another to make pots. It will be a great misfortune if a natural winemaker picks up clay and sits down at the potter’s wheel. It will be a great disaster if someone who knows how to rhyme starts growing tobacco. After all, it is not money and gold that make a person happy, but their favorite work!
Another time, an angry woman came running in. She was screaming, spitting saliva, and waving her arms like a mill with winged blades:
— Come on, wise man, explain to me why God is so unjust? My sister and I are similar, only she has a good husband, three children, and a new house. And I am an old maid with no husband, no house, no children!
Hryhorii thought about it:
— I think it’s about unequal equality. Imagine that God is a fountain that gives everyone water equally, and everyone can take as much as their personal reservoir can hold. One person has a spoon inside, another has a bucket, and another has a barrel. If you don’t get anything, then you have nowhere to take this divine grace. Either there was not enough space, or the container was already filled to the brim with hatred and bile.
The woman cursed like a real cobbler. As she cursed, one eye rolled down to her temple, the other flew up and hid in her hair. Her pouty lips were drawn askew.
On that August day, Hryhorii was in Kyiv. Suddenly he felt a strange uneasiness. It was as if some otherworldly force was escorting him out of the city. It pushed him in the back and insisted: «Hurry up and run!» He grabbed his bag and started running, looking around in confusion, but when he reached Podil, he smelled a stench. He realized that a pestilence was coming to the city. Hryhorii returned and warned his friends, but they just laughed. On September 3, Kyiv was already closed for entry and exit, and in three months, six thousand people died in Podil alone. A year later, the pestilence reached Moscow.
That’s how he lived. He walked around the world and listened to it carefully. He tried to convey that the clear sky is not afraid of lightning and thunder, and that of all losses, the loss of time is the most severe. He came up with his own formula for happiness. He believed that the rich are not those who have much, but those who have enough. He advised to be happy with little, but to strive for more. To see the light in everything, even in the darkness. He spoke Ukrainian in everyday life. He wrote his works in a «mixture» but never published a single book during his lifetime. He read the Bible so often that by the time he was old, he had learned the Scriptures by heart.
His travels lasted twenty-five years. He spent winters in monasteries and flew to apiaries because he did not have his own home. He preached freedom from unnecessary things. He ate neither fish nor meat. He ate once a day. He slept no more than four hours. He advised to cognize the invisible from the visible.
In late autumn, he clearly realized that time was running out. They say he dug his grave himself and insulated it with oak leaves. He made a register of his works, the most important of which he marked with asterisks. He bathed, changed his clothes, lay down, and set off on an irreversible journey. Far beyond the boundaries of the world that was trying to catch him, but didn’t.
It was November outside the windows.
Immortal truths were glowing beyond the horizon…