Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2019

Alyosha the Jug

Alyosha the Jug

Photograph via Flickr by Markus Schoepke

Alyoshka was the younger brother. They nicknamed him “Jug” because his mother sent him with a jug of milk to the deacon’s wife, and he tripped and shattered it. His mother beat him, and the kids started teasing him with the name “Jug.” Alyoshka the Jug—that’s how he got the nickname.

Alyoshka was small, gaunt, and lop-eared (they stuck out like wings), with a big nose. The kids teased: “Alyoshka’s got a nose like a misshapen potato.” The village had a schoolhouse, but Alyoshka was no good at reading and writing and, anyway, he didn’t have the time to study. His older brother lived with a merchant in town, and from a young age Alyoshka helped his father. Six years old, and already he was at the pasture guarding the cows and the sheep with his older sister, and once he grew a little, he guarded the horses night and day. At twelve, he raked and towed. He wasn’t strong, but he had skill. He was always cheerful. The kids mocked him, but he either laughed or kept mum. If his father scolded him he bit his tongue and listened. As soon as the scolding stopped, he smiled and took to whatever task was in front of him.

Alyosha was nineteen when the army drafted his brother. His father put him in his brother’s place as the merchant’s caretaker. They gave him his brother’s old boots, his father’s hat and coat, and drove him into town. Alyosha was thrilled by his new clothes, but the merchant wasn’t happy with the way he looked.

“I figured, you’d  at least send a human to replace Simyon,” said the merchant, examining Alyosha. “And you bring me this weakling. What good is he?”

“He can do anything—harness, drive, work like a dog; he may not look like much, but he’s tough.”

“Well, we’ll see about that.”

“And best of all, he knows his place. Always itching to work.”

“What am I gonna do with you? Leave him.”

And that’s how Alyosha came to live with the merchant.

The merchant’s family wasn’t big: the missus, the old mother, the married older son—of simple upbringing and in business with his father—and the other son, educated, had finished grammar school and gone to university, but they threw him out, so he lived at home, and a daughter too—a grammar school girl.

They didn’t like Alyoshka at first—he was too boorish, he dressed badly, and he lacked manners, addressed everyone informally—but they quickly got used to him. He served them even better than his brother had. It was true that he knew his place, so they sent him on all the errands, and he did everything willingly and quickly, moving from one task to the next without pause. And, like it had been at home, all the work was dumped on Alyosha. The more he did, the more they dumped on him. The missus, and the old mother, and the daughter, and the son, and the steward, and the cook, everyone sent him everywhere, made him do everything. All you heard was “Boy, can you run over to the . . .” or “Alyosha, arrange that, you hear?” “Oh, Alyoshka, you didn’t forget that, did you?” “Look, don’t you forget this Alyosha.” And Alyosha ran around, arranged, oversaw, and didn’t forget, fit everything in, and kept smiling.

Soon he wore down his brother’s boots, and the master gave him a serious scolding for walking with frayed shoes and bare toes and ordered him to buy new boots at the bazaar. The new boots made Alyosha happy, but he still had his old legs, and by night they ached from all the running around, and he’d get angry with them. Alyosha was scared, lest he upset his dad when he came for the boy’s earnings and discovered that the merchant was going to subtract the price of the boots from his salary.

During the winter Alyosha rose before sunrise, chopped wood, raked the yard, fed the cow, the horses, gave them water. Then he lit the stoves, shined the shoes, washed the masters’ clothing, fired the samovars, cleaned them. Then either the steward called him to drag out the merchandise, or the cook ordered him to knead the dough and clean the pots. Then they sent him to town with a note, or to pick up the master’s daughter from school, or to get lamp oil for the old mother. “Where do you keep disappearing, you wretched soul?” One or the other would yell at him. “Why go yourself when Alyoshka can do it? Alyoshka! Alyoshka!” And Alyosha ran around.

He ate breakfast on the go, and rarely had time for lunch with the others. The cook would get mad that he lagged behind everyone, but she felt bad for him anyway and always left him something hot for lunch and dinner. The hardest work came around the holidays. And Alyosha loved the holidays, mostly because then, they’d tip him, though not much—he’d gather about 60 kopeks—but it was still his money. He could spend it however he wanted. After all, he never laid eyes on his salary. His father drove up, took it from the merchant, stopping only to scold Alyosha for wearing through his boots too soon.

Once he saved two rubles of “tip” money, he bought a red knit jacket, at the cook’s suggestion, and as soon as he put it on, he could barely close his mouth he was so happy.

Alyosha didn’t speak much, and when he did, it was always curtly and abruptly. And when they ordered him to do something, or asked him to do it, then, without the slightest hesitation, he always said, “It’s all possible,” and instantly threw himself to the task.

He didn’t know any prayers, forgot the ones his mother had taught him, but he still managed to pray both morning and night—with his hands, crossing himself.

Alyosha spent a year and a half like this. But then, during the second part of his second year, the most extraordinary thing happened to him. What happened, was that he discovered, to his own astonishment, that in addition to those relationships based purely on everyday needs—someone needs you to clean their boots, or deliver a package, or lock up a horse—there are also relationships so special, that sometimes a person needs another person for no reason at all, except to take care of him and caress him, and that he, Alyosha, was actually that person for someone else. He discovered this through the cook, Ustinya. Ustyusha was an orphan, young, and just as much of a work horse. She started to pity Alyoshka, and for the first time, Alyosha felt that he, and not his services, mattered to another person. When his mother took pity on him, he never noticed, just took it for granted; he might as well have been taking pity on himself. But now, suddenly, he saw that Ustinya wasn’t related to him at all, and there she was taking care of him, leaving him buttered porridge in a pot, and watching him eat, her chin perched on her sullied hand. He’d glance at her, and she’d laugh, and then he’d start laughing too.

This was so new and so strange that at first it terrified Alyosha. He felt that it would interfere with his work, get in the way of his good service. But still, he was happy, and when he looked at his pants, pants patched by Ustinya’s hands, he would smile and shake his head. Often during work, or on the run, he’d think about Ustinya and exclaim: “Oh that Ustinya!”  Ustinya helped him when she could, and he helped her. She told him her life story, how she’d been orphaned, how her aunt took her in, how they gave her up to the town, how the merchant’s son tried to get her to do foolish things and how she resisted. She loved to talk, and he found it pleasant to listen to her. He’d heard that in towns, the workingmen often married the cooks. And one day she asked him if he’d be married off soon. He said that he didn’t know and that he didn’t want to marry anyone from the village.

“Why? You got your eye on someone?” she asked.

“Well, I’d take you. Would you join me?”

“Oh Jug, Jug, how you’ve managed to put it,” she said, hitting his back with a hand towel. “And why not?”

His father came for his earnings during the feast. The merchant’s wife found out that Alyosha had decided to marry Ustinya and she didn’t like it one bit. “She’ll get pregnant and what do we need a servant with a child for?” she said to her husband.

The merchant gave the money to Alyosha’s father.

“So, is my boy serving you well?” asked the peasant. “I told you he knows his place.”

“He may know his place, but he’s up to something dumb. He wants to marry the cook. I won’t keep married servants around here. They won’t do me any good.”

“That idiot. What’s he thinking?” said the father. “Don’t worry, I’ll order him to drop it.”

He walked into the kitchen and sat down at the table awaiting his son. Alyosha was running errands and came back out of breath.

“I thought you were sensible. What have you dreamed up?” said the father.

“Nothing.”

“What do you mean nothing? You want to get married. I’ll marry you off once the time’s right, and I’ll do it as needed, and not to some town tramp.”

The old man talked a lot. Alyosha stood there and breathed deep. When his father finished, Alyosha smiled.

“No big deal, I can just forget about it.”

“That’s better.”

When his father left and he was alone with Ustinya, he said to her (she’d been listening through the door the whole time):

“Our affair’s not in the right way, it won’t work out. You hear? He’s condemned it, it’s against his will.”

Without a word she cried into her apron. Alyosha clicked his tongue.

“There’s no disobeying him. Looks like we’ve got to leave it.”

In the evening, when the merchant’s wife called him to close the shutters, she said to him:

“So, you listened to your father? Dropped your nonsense?”

“I guess I have.” Alyosha said, he laughed and then immediately started to cry.

From then on Alyosha didn’t talk to Ustinya about marriage anymore and he went back to his old life.

Then the steward sent him to shovel the snow from the roof. He climbed up there, swept it all up, started to tear the frozen snow away from the gutters when his feet slipped and he fell with the shovel. Unfortunately, he didn’t fall into the snow but onto the metal-plated threshold. Ustinya ran to him with the merchant’s daughter.

“Alyosha, did you hit yourself?”

“Hit myself? You bet. But it’s no big deal.”

He wanted to stand, but he couldn’t. Then he started to smile. They carried him down to the porter’s lodge. The village doctor came. Examined him and asked where it hurt.

“It hurts everywhere, but it’s alright. Except, the master will be upset. I have to send word to father.”

Alyosha lay there for two days, on the third, they called the priest.

“So Alyi, you’re going to die on us?” asked Ustinya.

“And what if I do? We can’t live through everything, can we? It has to happen sometime,” Alyosha said curtly, as usual. “Thank you Ustyusha, for taking pity on me. And it’s better that they forbid us to marry, or it would’ve been for nothing anyway. Now everything’s the way it should be.”

He prayed with the priest using only his hand and his heart. And in his heart he felt how wonderful it was to be there, if you listened well and didn’t disoblige. And so, it would be good out there too.

He spoke little. Only asked for water and kept looking surprised at something.

Something surprised him; he stretched his hand, and died.