Written by Maxim Gorky (1894).

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Translated from the Russian by Janna Kaplan [i]


The sea is vast - breathing lazily by the shore line, - and, in the distance, it is almost dormant and strangely still in the moonlight glow. There, far away on the horizon, the silvery sea softly fuses with the blue southern sky and is sound asleep, covered in lacy reflections of spindrift clouds whose gossamer fabric is motionless and does not obscure the golden glitter of stars. Over the dark waters, the sky hovers very low as if trying to hear the waves' unsettled whisper as they slowly roll to shore.

On the shore's forested mountains, ugly trees are misshapen by the nor'easter, their jagged, stiff tops project into the blue vastness above; yet, below, their gloomy outlines are relaxed and lush in the warmth and languor of the southern night.

The mountains are solemn as if suspended in thought. They throw dark shadows on the spongy, greenish crests of the waves below, enveloping them as if to arrest their singular motion, to muffle their incessant splashing and the sighs of their foam - all the sounds that disturb the mysterious fusion of the air's calm and the silver-blue shine of the moon still hidden by the mountain tops.

- Al-la-a-Akhba-a-ar!.. - quietly exhales Nadyr-Raghim-Ogly, a gray-haired, old and wise Crimean herder, tall and withered, his skin deeply burnt by the southern sun.

He and I are lying on the sand by a huge stone that broke off from the nearest mountain, still under its shadow and overgrown with moss; - the stone looks glum and severe. The waves knurl over the sea side of it, depositing slime and algae; and the rock so adorned seems tethered by the narrow strip of sand that separates sea from mountains. The other side of the rock, the side that faces the mountain, is lit by our campfire, and each time the flames shiver, murky shadows dazzle the old stone's surface deeply indented with cracks and scratches.

Raghim and I are cooking fish soup from our fresh catch, and we both are in such a surreal mood when everything seems animate, inspires and opens your soul to deep feelings; the heart is pure, and the lightness of being expels all desires except the desire to think.

And the sea caresses the shore, and the waves splash at it with such tenderness as if begging us to let them warm up by the campfire. At times, in the unified harmony of the waves' sounds, one can distinguish a higher note, like a playful pitch, - that's when one of the waves, the boldest of them, creeps up and almost touches us.

Raghim lies with his chest in the sand and his face turned seaward, absorbed in thought and watching the sea; his elbows are planted in the sand and he holds his head in his palms, looking into the hazy distance as if transfixed. A shaggy goat-fur hat nearly slid off his head, and the sea breeze cools his high and deeply wrinkled brow. He seems to be conversing with the sea, and starts philosophizing without caring if I am even listening to him:

- The one who is faithful to God, he goes to paradise. And the one who serves not God nor the Prophet?.. Maybe, he is - in that sea foam. And those silver spots on the water, who knows?... maybe it's him, too.

The dark expanse of the mighty sea brightens, and sporadically, like scattered glitter, there appear some patches of reflected moonlight. The moon has finally risen up from the disheveled mountain tops, and it now pours its pensive light over the waters which calmly breathe toward it, over the shore, and over the rock by which we lie.

- Raghim!... Tell me a story. - I ask of the old man.

- What for? - answers Raghim without turning to look at me.

- ...'cause...! I love your tales.

- I've already told you all of them. Don't know any more. - He is just saying this because he wants me to beg him. So, I beg.

- Want me to tell you a song? - says Raghim, agreeably.

I do want to hear the old song; and, in sonorous cantillation, trying to preserve the peculiar melody, he begins.



High up the mountain crawled a snake and lay there in a slimy crevice, all curled up tightly and looking seaward.

High in the sky the sun shone brightly, rocks breathing heat, and ocean waves were breaking stones beneath the mountain...

Cutting a canyon into the mountain, grinding the stones, a stream was rushing, all dark and foamy, toward the ocean...

All of a sudden into the crevice where Snake was resting there fell a falcon, blood on her feathers, and deeply wounded...

Her cry was piercing; she fell and tumbled, crushing her breast in helpless anger upon the stones...

First, Snake was frightened, crawled shrewdly backwards, but soon he figured that poor Falcon perhaps had only a few brief minutes of life remaining...

He slithered close to the wounded Falcon, and hissed directly into her ear:

- Hey, are you dying?

- Yes, I am dying! - responded Falcon with a heavy sigh. - I had a good life!.. I knew fulfillment of dreams and hopes!.. I saw the sky... I touched it, soared!.. You'll never know it so high and close!.. You poor creature!

- What is the sky to me? Nothing and empty... One cannot crawl there. I like it here ... so warm and humid!

Snake answered thus the bird of freedom, and deep inside he even chuckled at her delusions. And thought like this: "We fly or crawl, but in the end we know what happens: we all turn to dust, all end up buried in sand or soil..."

But wounded Falcon just shook herself, lifted her head up, and looked around the seeping crevice. Indeed, the stone around there was wet and slimy, the air was stifling and smelled of scavenge.

And Falcon gathered all her strength remaining, and let out a cry of pain and yearning:

- Oh, if I only could rise up flying - one last time only, while I'm still living - in the deep air of lucid heaven!...

Snake heard, and whispered: "Why would she, dying, be so driven to grieve for flying?... This lucid air that bears flyers, indeed, may turn out to be delightful for living creatures. "

He said to Falcon, the dying dreamer: "Come on, move close to the cliff's edge there, and throw down your wounded body. For ... who would know?! ... your wings and air might lift you upward, and once again let you enjoy the thrill of flying amidst your element."

And Falcon shuddered; with a loud cry, she labored to gain the canyon's bluff, slipping and falling and yet still rising. But then she made it to the utmost edge and spread out her wings; inhaling deeply, she looked around with a flaming glare - and downward fell.

And like a stone she rolled and tumbled, and slipped and scattered, breaking her wings and losing feathers...

The stream below caught her, all beaten, washed off her bleeding, covered with foam and gently carried her into the ocean.

The ocean waves were crushing stones with mournful roaring... The corpse of Falcon was never found in the vast expanses of rocks and water...


Laying in his crevice, Snake contemplated the death of Falcon, her love of flying. He lay a long time in the narrow crevice, staring into this puzzling air that teases the eyes of the misguided with silly dreams.

- What did she see there, in total emptiness, without bottom or edge or cover? The likes of her, in death as living, why do they dare confuse one's soul with their passion for skyward flying? What do they see there? What do they hear? And might not I grasp all its meanings if I could fly there for just one moment?

Snake said - and did it! His body tightened, he fast uncoiled, cutting through the air, like a flash of lightning.

Those born to crawl - will never fly!.. Forgetting that, Snake hit the stones; not hurt, however, he thought, elated:

- So, that's the beauty of skyward flying! It is - in falling!.. Birds are so foolish! Not knowing earth, depressed when grounded, they feel the calling to rise to heaven and seek life's pleasures in empty vastness. It is but empty. It is filled with light but void of food and of protection for us the living. Why, then, was Falcon so bold and proud? Just to conceal the sheer madness of her desires and lack of fitness among the living. Birds are so foolish!.. But I am wiser! I shan't be bullied by their tattles. I know now! I saw their heaven, the sky of flying. I launched into it, its depths I measured; endured falling, but did not shudder, and gained much confidence from this endeavor. Let those wretches who cannot love this solid ground live in delusion. I know the truth. I won't be fooled. Of earth created - by earth I'm living.

And feeling proud, he coiled tightly, and was quite happy.


In sunlit glory the ocean glittered, and waves crushed stones with thunderous roaring. And in that roaring one could just hear the song, or ballad, of the proud Falcon; the rocks were trembling from waves' hard beating, and heaven echoed words of the ballad:

"We praise the daring of valiant dreamers!

"Creation's wisdom is in their boldness. Oh, blessed Falcon! You were defeated, and died pursuing your dream of freedom, of flying skyward. And yet ... Oh, Falcon! Yours is the future - the blood you spilled, like sparks of fire, will light the darkness of grim existence, igniting hearts of countless many with thirst for living! And in this ballad, the song composed for the strong of spirit, you will be always the shining symbol, the proud caller to light and freedom!

"Praised be the daring of all bold dreamers!"


... Quiet is the opalescent remoteness of the sea, the waves roll over sand with rustling melodies, and I am silent, watching the distant horizon. The silver patches of moonlight on the sea surface are abundant now... Our cauldron is boiling slowly.

One of the waves rolls playfully out on the shore, and, with a defiant rattle, crawls straight toward Raghim's head.

- What the ...?? Get off!!! - Raghim brandishes his hand at it, and it obediently rolls back into the sea.

Raghim's treatment of waves as animate is neither funny nor troubling to me. In fact, everything around us looks mysteriously alive, soft, and tender. The sea is profoundly quiet, so quiet it is, that one feels its immense power - even in the refreshing breeze from the sea to the mountains still feverish from the day's swelter - one feels the hidden, contained but all-mighty force. The sky, dark-blue and adorned by the golden lace of stars, evokes exultation that is all but enchanting, bewitching the soul, confusing the mind, as a sweet precursor of some awesome revelation.

All around, the world is in a slumber, but a slumber so tense and fragile, and so delicate that it seems any moment to shake it off and break into a melody of sublime and powerful harmony. This tune can tell of the secrets of the universe, bring reason to the mind and then extinguish it just as quickly as one puts out a candle; and entice your soul away, high up into the dark-blue abyss of the skies where the tremulous veil of the stars will welcome it with the exquisite, heavenly music of revelation...


i. A part of this translation - the prose poem or 'song' section - has been previously published in Slovo/Word, v. 71, August 2011, pp. 23-27. In that publication, my 'prose' sections which are the introduction and the conclusion of the whole work were replaced by the editor with translation by Leonid Yakovlev; yet, I think mine are better and closer to the Maxim Gorky's original Russian.