Short Story: Vladimir Volkoff's "The Ways of the Lord"

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In September of 2005, Russo-French novelist Vladimir Volkoff died in his sleep in Bourdeilles in southwestern France. Born in 1932 in Paris to White Russians who had fled Communism, Volkoff was passionately devoted to a heroic ideal that demanded selfless service and aristocratic honor. His reputation as a writer rested primarily upon the espionage fiction that propelled him into the French media in the early 1980s (The Turnaround, 1979; The Set-Up, 1982; and his magisterial tetralogy, The Moods of the Sea, 1980). But he was also a man of widely diverse talents and interests: an intelligence officer in the French army during the Algerian War, a college professor, an actor/director, an avid hunter, fencer, chess player, and weapon collector. A remarkably prolific writer, he published not only fiction but also essays, plays, biblical commentaries, biographies (including that of his great grand uncle Tchaikovsky), translations, science fiction, children’s mysteries, and one could go on and on.

Thoroughly trilingual, he spoke Russian, French, and English with hardly a trace of an accent. Surprisingly enough, this man who was so passionately devoted to the Russian and French cultures lived for two decades in Georgia, first in Decatur, where he taught languages at Agnes Scott College, and then in Macon after he retired from teaching to devote full time to his writing career. Being an inveterate story-teller and an admirable conversationalist, Volkoff naturally inspired the yarn-spinning talents of his American friends, and before he left this country to return to his beloved Périgord region (east of Bordeaux), he decided to publish in French an anthology of the best stories he had heard in Georgia over the years. The collection, entitled Nouvelles américaines (American Stories), came out in Paris (Julliard/L’Age d’Homme) in 1986. “The Ways of the Lord” is but one of the more entertaining of those tales.

In order to understand “The Ways of the Lord” adequately, the reader must realize that even though it was published in 1986, Volkoff actually heard the story told considerably earlier. It is a story whose action should probably be placed in the 1960s at the latest. His depiction of the depictions of Chuck and Raspberry are decidedly vestiges of the Jim Crow era and might compare favorably with the picture of rural blacks in Flannery O’Connor’s stories. It goes without saying that Volkoff found those Jim Crow vestiges repulsive. One clearly senses that despite the provincial ways of the Old South that irked him (like not being able to order wine with one’s meal on a Sunday), Volkoff was charmed by some of the old-fashioned dignity and sense of propriety also associated with traditional Southern culture.

As a lifelong southerner who grew up in the sleepy little town of Rockmart, 49 miles northwest of Atlanta, and a career French teacher, I found the translating of this text to be one of the more enjoyable research projects in my recent memory. I was indeed fortunate to have the assistance of Denise Carla Volkoff, the author’s widow, who was my colleague in the foreign language department at Mercer from 1972 to 1991. I also profited from the assistance of other colleagues: Anna Weaver Hogan, Jay and Diana Stege, Ray Brewster, and Kurt Corriher. They are each due my deep gratitude.

“The Ways of the Lord”
by Vladmir Volkoff
Translated by John Marson Dunaway

1

There was nothing to do and Chuck was doing nothing. There was beer to drink and Chuck was drinking it. There was Raspberry to pass the time with and Chuck was passing the time with Raspberry. Besides, it was Raspberry who had brought the beer.

The afternoon seemed endless.

They had sat down side by side on the creek bank that bordered Chuck’s mother’s land. They had taken off their shoes and the water flowed between their chocolate toes, which they spread out deliciously. When the sixth can had gone down the drain—they accumulated downstream at a dam of mud and twigs—Raspberry went and bought six more at Punkin’s. Punkin gave credit.

While Raspberry was gone, a salamander ran between two rivulets, from one pebble to another. Salamanders annoyed Chuck. Plump, pawed, they wriggled their red bodies—whether to swim or to crawl, you couldn’t tell. When he was little, he had caught some with his bare hands, but later they seemed disgusting to him, and now, at over eighteen years of age, he wouldn’t have touched one for ten dollars.

Raspberry arrived with the beer.

“I figure,” said Chuck, “like this, they must be sick. Salamanders. To be that color.”

“They ain’t sick,” replied Raspberry. “They’s always like they is now. Bein’ sick means bein’ now like you ain’t always.”

In his own way, Raspberry seemed to be right. For Chuck, these things were never so clear. He was skeptical.

“It’s still a funny-looking color,” said Chuck. “Me, I figure like this, they could have been sick from the time they was born.”

Raspberry ripped the pop-top from a can and started to drink, as if to say, “I’m drinking, but I could just as well not drink, it don’t make no difference to me.”

Raspberry disappeared from time to time for weeks. Where? You know where. There was no other place.

Chuck put the white soles of his brown feet together.

“I figure like this,” he said, “that I might be sick myself.”

“You ain’t sick, since we’s alike. Bein’ sick means not bein’ alike.”

“We could both be sick.”

“In that case, we’d be sick all over, head to toe.”

Raspberry lifted his white palm and giggled.

Chuck took a can of beer that froze his hand. He thought for a moment and decided he didn’t agree with Raspberry. Sickness, it don’t have to cover your whole body.

“If one of them had black soles, what would people say? That he was sick in his soles. You see.”

Raspberry wasn’t inclined toward this kind of discussion. He didn’t trouble himself to find an argument.

The light was going down on the bare terrain.

“There’s this preacher,” said Raspberry. “My mama does his housework. He’s not exactly a preacher either.”

The light was going down. Children chased each other, calling out to one another.

“For two or three days,” said Raspberry, “he ain’t there. The preacher. Nor his wife.”

Chuck had always respected the law. As far as possible, you understand. He sipped on the last beer, already almost lukewarm. Windows lit up here and there. A little owl fluttered heavily from one branch to another.

“There it go, off a-huntin’,” said Chuck.

“It over there,” said Raspberry with a nod of his head pointing out, clearer than any address, a certain street in the twilight. “Second house from the corner. On this here side.”

“Yeah,” said Chuck. It was neither yes nor no. it was yeah. You have to be a professional to say yes or no.

Now silence reigned over the neighborhood. A rectangle of yellow light framed a fat woman with bronzed shoulders and cheeks.

To every one in general and with a piercing voice, “Come here, Nappy!” she cried. “Come here, you dirty little nigger.”

Night was falling faster and faster. Any surfaces that weren’t wide open were being impregnated with darkness. The daytime creek had been replaced by a nighttime creek. The salamanders were no longer visible.

Raspberry got up. He went waddling off.

“Nappy! Yo’ daddy’s taking off his belt …”

Chuck remained alone in the dark.

The neighbor appeared again on the doorstep: “Napoleon Stubbs! Am I gon’ have to come get you?”

The sound of branches moving. A precipitous running.

Chuck, who had never felt the sting of the paternal belt because he’d never had a father, smiled, amused.

His teeth caught the glint of the first moonbeam.

2

On one side of the street, the lawns shown like mirrors on which the moonlit façades might have been reflected.

On the other, the houses stagnated in opaque shadow.

The house in question was on the good side.

A stupid lamp was shining above the front door. No illumined windows. Bushes lurked at the foot of the walls.

The weather was nice, so nice. One would gladly have slept outdoors.

“You go in first,” said Raspberry. “I’ll cover you. Take this.”

Chuck took the flashlight and turned it on. It projected a white circle on the scene.

“Not here. Inside. You moving?”

Chuck could have crossed the lawn to go try the front door. Some folks, he knew never locked their door. All the same, he preferred to try his luck out back. It was a more likely prospect.

He went up the asphalt alley that ran alongside the house. He was walking in a corridor of darkness with windows—at his right and above him—closed upon a still thicker darkness: that inside the houses. He felt that if he tried to enter, this compressed darkness would repulse him.

At the corner he stopped. The grass that stretched out behind the house was immersed in moonlight. Should he venture there? That would be like stripping naked.

But he did, after having given himself time to screw up his courage. A new energy was swelling in his loins. In a leap he was on the back porch. The wooden step sagged, elastic, under his weight. He seized the doorknob and turned carefully, forgetting that his back was nailed to the screen door by the low-angle shots of moonlight.

Inside, there was a clean smell. So as to make no noise—also, perhaps, in order not to soil the floor: his mother had raised him right—he took off his shoes.

The black interior didn’t drive him back, as he had feared. On the contrary, Chuck felt himself drawn in by these dark depths. He walked as if he were letting himself fall into emptiness. His right hand extended straight ahead with fingers spread out, his left holding the flashlight, which was still turned off.

The darkness wasn’t what he had imagined. It was a clear darkness, for the moonlight cascaded through all the windows, and the surfaces of things—a sink, a refrigerator, a table, a buffet—shone intensely, each in its place. Only one didn’t make them out very well until they were in front of one’s face. Dangerous for one’s feet. Chuck nearly tipped over a stool, catching it at the last second. He slipped from room to room, expecting a wall but finding a door, hoping for a door but bumping his nose against a mirror.

The carpet was rough to his bare feet. It was as if hundreds of glass filaments were irritating his skin. He didn’t know how many rooms there were. Maybe he had gone across the same one several times. But he still was looking for a darker one, the darkest, in order to fall deeper into it.

He pushed one more shining paneled surface and suddenly found himself in total darkness. Here, the blinds were closed and the double curtains drawn, and the door had clicked shut behind him. He turned on the flashlight, pressing with his thumb. Nobody could see him from outside, could they? In the circle of light a girl appeared, sleeping on her pillow.

Thirteen years old, round-cheeked, her hair sticking to her sweaty forehead.

Chuck took a step.

A tree had just grown up inside him, an entire thick and bushy tree in a matter of seconds, tightening him, tearing him apart, bruising him with its rough bark, swelling him with sap, making him burst inside. Chuck was ill.

The child opened her milky eyes.

“No moving, little white girl,” whispered Chuck.

He looked for some place to lay the flashlight, for he needed both hands free, and yet he wanted to see what was going to happen.

The child sat up on her elbows. She saw a big black snout, nostrils penetrated by the flashlight, moist teeth. Then, as she had been taught, with her little heart-shaped mouth and without hesitation, she whispered:

“In the name of Jesus Christ, I rebuke you!”

“Little white girl, no moving.”

She tried to spit but didn’t find any saliva in her dry mouth. So she pretended to spit.

“I rebuke you, Satan!”

She had been taught in Sunday school that if you rebuked Satan he would disappear. Chuck had been taught the same thing, and he couldn’t bear hearing himself called by that name that was to be hated above all others.

“I ain’t Satan. I ain’t gon’ do you no harm. Jus’ don’t move.”

Raspberry was waiting for Chuck to hand him a television set through the window. As if Chuck was thinking about a television set! He had placed his flashlight on a shelf. He dashed forward, projecting on the wall a monstrous shadow. The bed creaked loudly. The flashlight rolled onto the floor, still lit, like an eye on the surface of the rug.

Through the patchwork quilt, Chuck’s big hands felt for knees and ankles and he stammered, making big bubbles at the corners of his mouth:

“Don’t move … no hurt … no hurt … don’t move …”

The child wasn’t struggling. Terrified, but quite sure of herself, she repeated in a stubborn tone:

“Satan, I rebuke you in the name of Jesus Christ.”

All of a sudden a blinding light came on. A white pyramid stood over Chuck, and a voice that seemed to have no human quality filled his ears:

“Alla ugla ugla uyu ayu a u allaua …”

Standing on another bed, legs spread apart, torso bent backward, head thrown back, hands over her ears, the white of her eyes visible in bulging eyeballs, a girl dressed in a nightgown that fell in a single stiff movement from shoulders to heels screamed out:

“Aya ullu alla …”

Her voice seemed to issue not from her mouth but from her belly.

Chuck leapt down from the bed, picked himself up as best he could, and ran out without so much as another look at the avenging vision. Bumping against walls, furniture, doorframes, bruising his knees and toes, issuing forth now into a room lighted up like an aquarium, now into a dark hall, he ended up finding the front door.

“Wallie lawalla ai ai walla lau …”

The inhuman voice pursued him.

He crossed the lawn without looking in front of him and went headfirst into the chest of a giant with a hat on, whom the blow didn’t even cause to wobble.

“You look pretty hurried, my boy. We’ll just drive you back, if you like,” said the giant with solicitude.

With his left hand, he opened the car door, and with a gesture of his right, to which long habit gave a bit of style, he shoved Chuck in.

The child, however had put her head back on the pillow. She sighed a good sigh, and to no one in particular:

“It’s just like they told us,” she said with an air of satisfaction. “Nothing resists the name of the Lord.”

Then, noting that her elder sister was still booming forth, she screwed up her nose with a bit of irritation:

“Listen, Sarah, everybody knows you’ve received the gift of speaking in tongues. You do it often enough at Sunday services. No use insisting. Turn out the light and let me sleep.”

Sarah turned out the light and fell silent like a good girl.

Under the bed, the flashlight shone a more and more yellow light as the batteries died.

3

Chuck was seated on his bunk, the lower one. His hands were spread out on his knees, palms up. He kept gazing at them and smiled stupidly.

For the visitor, the policeman had brought a stool. And the visitor was sitting there, on his stool, stiff, tall, lean, as if he were supported by a straight chair-back, whereas there was nothing behind him but thin air.

His face was lean, and when he spoke his lips formed all kinds of unexpected designs, corresponding to the terms he was using. Chuck had never heard any one articulate so distinctly. The gentleman crackled out his t’s with the end of his incisors and gargled out his a’s from the bottom of his rib cage. You could sense that there was a great music inside him but that out of politeness he made it play softly.

“I’m Mr. Hicks,” he announced.

And he breathed in air between his teeth.

Chuck didn’t answer. He was still contemplating the deep and rudimentary lines that were streaking his hands.

“Did they give you a quarter?” asked Mr. Hicks.

Chuck let out a silly laugh.

“Sure,” he said. “They gave me one.”

“And why does this make you laugh? They are required to by law.”

Chuck was still laughing.

“My mama ain’t got no phone. So the quarter …”

“Give me her address.”

Mr. Hicks drew a whole assortment of paraphernalia out of his pockets: files, pencils, ballpoint pen. When they begin to write, it’s a bad sign. Chuck let his head dangle on his chest.

“Your mother didn’t know of your intentions, I presume?” asked Mr. Hicks.

And, as Chuck didn’t seem to understand, he translated:

“She didn’t know what you were going to do at my house?”

Chuck’s head shook laterally.

“So she doesn’t know where you are? I’ll go tell her. Personally.”

Chuck gave him the address because he couldn’t refuse. For several long minutes, they remained seated facing each other, Chuck looking carefully at his palms and Mr. Hicks looking carefully at Chuck.

“You’re going to be prosecuted for trespassing,” Mr. Hicks finally said. “I won’t testify against you. You will most certainly be relaxed. I mean, released.”

He inhaled between his teeth. Chuck smiled the most idiotic smile he could. He didn’t believe Mr. Hicks. He thought he had only one chance of getting out of this: to be found insane. The insane are allowed to kill and rape, it’s the law.

“Meanwhile,” Mr. Hicks went on, “you’ll spend a few days here.”

He cast a circular glance around the steel cage where they were locked up together.

“A few days to think about yourself and your future.”

Chuck smiled, still gazing at his pink palms.

The policeman appeared in the hall and cast a glance over his shoulder in order not to have the appearance of spying.

“Mr. White,” resumed Mr. Hicks, “how old are you?”

“Eighteen,” responded Chuck mechanically.

“Eighteen,” repeated Mr. Hicks. “At eighteen, it’s high time to take one’s life in one’s hands and to forge something out of it. What is your profession?”

Chuck didn’t have one. Mr. Hicks refrained from insisting.

“Mr. White,” he uttered in a tone both severe and benevolent, “you will be prosecuted, I repeat, for simple trespassing. But in order to assist you more effectively, I must know what you were after under my roof. You can tell me; I won’t tell anybody. Besides, your statement won’t change my attitude in any way. However, I need to know what you were doing in my daughters’ bedroom.”

“I’ve got a headache,” said Chuck. “Oh, my head hurts so bad!”

He put his skull in his hands.

Mr. Hicks watched him with a mixture of compassion and irony.

“Did you intend to rob me of something? Or were you there to wrong my little girl?”

“It hurts, it hurts so bad,” repeated Chuck.

He had no intention of letting himself get taken in by this preacher who was trying to worm the information out of him.

“Well?” said Mr. Hicks, without paying the slightest attention to his groans. “Why did you enter my house?”

Chuck started whimpering:

“I’m a poor nigger with a headache, that’s it.”

Mr. Hicks’s finely chiseled mouth took a different wrinkle. He continued to look Chuck over head to foot, but his breathing was getting faster. There was a struggle going on inside him, and no one could tell which of the two Mssrs. Hicks would win. Chuck wouldn’t have been surprised if one of those gentlemen had dealt him a blow in the face with his pointed shoe.

Mr. Hicks’s long nose seemed to bend, his cheeks to furrow, his chin to jut out, and in his austere eyes a fire of violence began to smoulder. Chuck saw all this out of the corner of his eye and waited.

Finally the struggle ended, and Mr. Hicks’s chest expanded broadly, as if he were calming down. His eyelids lowered and he spoke with a resonant voice, barely containing the ecstasy that had taken hold of him.

“Chuck, you don’t know yourself why you came into my house. And if you think you do, you’re mistaken. You entered my house to teach my little Rosie that the name of the Lord is truly all-powerful. So you came in the name of the Lord. And it is written: ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ Psalm 118, verse 26.”

He had uttered these numbers in a pompous tone, as if they contained some peculiar meaning.

He got up and his forehead almost touched the ceiling of the cage.

“From now on, we’re responsible for you. Do you have a Bible? No? Well, take this one. I brought it without knowing it was for you. Take it, it’s yours.”

He held out a black, worn book.

Chuck reached out his hand. He had never had a Bible and he was happy to have one all his own. He put it on the bed, beside his hip. And he resumed his stupid smile.

“I’ll come back to see you every day,” said Mr. Hicks, “and you will tell me about what you’ve read. That way, I’ll reassure your mother. The school where I teach needs custodians, and we also offer evening classes. You will learn a trade. Your future is assured.”

He was about to leave. Chuck called him back in a whining voice:

“Hey, Preacher!”

“My boy?”

“Don’t you believe I’m sick?”

Mr. Hicks’s mouth again took another shape. Eloquent, and all twisted, between the vertical wrinkles that framed it.

“Certainly,” he replied. “You are sick. And I am too, my boy. Who knows, perhaps more so than you.”

“We don’t have the same disease,” replied Chuck, finally raising his eyes.

“That’s true too,” acknowledged Mr. Hicks. “We each have our sickness. But we all have the same doctor.”

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