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Antonia, by Willa Sibert Cather
Book I: The Shimerdas
KNEW THAT THINGS were hard for our Bohemian neighbours, but the two girls
were lighthearted and never complained. They were always ready to forget
their troubles at home, and to run away with me over the prairie, scaring
rabbits or starting up flocks of quail.
remember Antonia's excitement when she came into our kitchen one afternoon
and announced: `My papa find
friends up north, with Russian mans. Last night he take me for see, and I
can understand very much talk. Nice mans, Mrs. Burden.
One is fat and all the time laugh. Everybody laugh.
The first time I see my papa laugh in this kawntree. Oh, very
asked her if she meant the two Russians who lived up by the big dog-town.
I had often been tempted to go to see them when I was riding in that
direction, but one of them was a wild-looking fellow and I was a little
afraid of him. Russia seemed to me more remote than any other country--
farther away than China, almost as far as the North Pole. Of all the
strange, uprooted people among the first settlers, those two men were the
strangest and the most aloof. Their last names were unpronounceable, so
they were called Pavel and Peter. They
went about making signs to people, and until the Shimerdas came they had
no friends. Krajiek could understand them a little, but he had cheated
them in a trade, so they avoided him.
Pavel, the tall one, was said to be an anarchist; since he had no
means of imparting his opinions, probably his wild gesticulations and his
generally excited and rebellious manner gave rise to this supposition. He
must once have been a very strong man, but now his great frame, with big,
knotty joints, had a wasted look, and the skin was drawn tight over his
high cheekbones. His breathing was hoarse, and he always had a cough.
his companion, was a very different sort of fellow; short, bow-legged, and
as fat as butter. He always
seemed pleased when he met people on the road, smiled and took off his cap
to everyone, men as well as women. At a distance, on his wagon, he looked
like an old man; his hair and beard were of such a pale flaxen colour that
they seemed white in the sun. They were as thick and curly as carded wool.
His rosy face, with its snub nose, set in this fleece, was like a
melon among its leaves. He was usually called `Curly Peter,' or `Rooshian
two Russians made good farm-hands, and in summer they worked out together.
I had heard our neighbours laughing when they told how Peter always
had to go home at night to milk his cow. Other bachelor homesteaders used
canned milk, to save trouble. Sometimes Peter came to church at the sod
schoolhouse. It was there I first saw him, sitting on a low bench by the
door, his plush cap in his hands, his bare feet tucked apologetically under
Mr. Shimerda discovered the Russians, he went to see them almost every
evening, and sometimes took Antonia with him. She said they came from a part
of Russia where the language was not very different from Bohemian, and if I
wanted to go to their place, she could talk to them for me. One afternoon,
before the heavy frosts began, we rode up there together on my pony.
Russians had a neat log house built on a grassy slope, with a windlass well
beside the door. As we rode up
the draw, we skirted a big melon patch, and a garden where squashes and
yellow cucumbers lay about on the sod. We found Peter out behind his
kitchen, bending over a washtub. He was working so hard that he did not hear
us coming. His whole body moved up and down as he rubbed, and he was a funny
sight from the rear, with his shaggy head and bandy legs. When he
straightened himself up to greet us, drops of perspiration were rolling from
his thick nose down onto his curly beard. Peter dried his hands and seemed
glad to leave his washing. He took us down to see his chickens, and his cow
that was grazing on the hillside. He
told Antonia that in his country only rich people had cows, but here any man
could have one who would take care of her.
The milk was good for Pavel, who was often sick, and he could make
butter by beating sour cream with a wooden spoon.
Peter was very fond of his cow. He patted her flanks and talked to
her in Russian while he pulled up her lariat pin and set it in a new place.
he had shown us his garden, Peter trundled a load of watermelons up the hill
in his wheelbarrow. Pavel was
not at home. He was off somewhere helping to dig a well.
The house I thought very comfortable for two men who were `batching.'
Besides the kitchen, there was a living-room, with a wide double bed built
against the wall, properly made up with blue gingham sheets and pillows.
There was a little storeroom, too, with a window, where they kept guns and
saddles and tools, and old coats and boots. That day the floor was covered
with garden things, drying for winter; corn and beans and fat yellow
cucumbers. There were no
screens or window-blinds in the house, and all the doors and windows stood
wide open, letting in flies and sunshine alike.
put the melons in a row on the oilcloth-covered table and stood over them,
brandishing a butcher knife. Before
the blade got fairly into them, they split of their own ripeness, with a
delicious sound. He gave us
knives, but no plates, and the top of the table was soon swimming with juice
and seeds. I had never seen anyone eat so many melons as Peter ate. He
assured us that they were good for one--better than medicine; in his country
people lived on them at this time of year. He was very hospitable and jolly.
Once, while he was looking at Antonia, he sighed and told us that if
he had stayed at home in Russia perhaps by this time he would have had a
pretty daughter of his own to cook and keep house for him. He said he had
left his country because of a `great trouble.'
we got up to go, Peter looked about in perplexity for something that would
entertain us. He ran into the
storeroom and brought out a gaudily painted harmonica, sat down on a bench,
and spreading his fat legs apart began to play like a whole band. The tunes
were either very lively or very doleful, and he sang words to some of them.
we left, Peter put ripe cucumbers into a sack for Mrs. Shimerda and gave us
a lard-pail full of milk to cook them in.
I had never heard of cooking cucumbers, but Antonia assured me they
were very good. We had to walk the pony all the way home to keep from
spilling the milk.
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