204) Ilyas and His Wife (part two)

ILYAS, a short story by Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)

     (…continued from yesterday’s meditation)

     ‘May I speak to him?’ asked the guest.  ‘I should like to ask him about his life.’

     ‘Why not?’ replied the master, and he called from the kibítka in which they were sitting:  ‘Grandfather, come in and have a cup of kumiss with us, and call your wife here also.’

     Ilyás entered with his wife; and after exchanging greetings with his master and the guests, he repeated a prayer, and seated himself near the door.  His wife passed in behind the curtain and sat down with her mistress.

     A Cap of kumiss was handed to Ilyás; he wished the guests and his master good health, bowed, drank a little, and put down the cup.

     ‘Well, Daddy,’ said the guest who had wished to speak to him, ‘I suppose you feel rather sad at the sight of us.  It must remind you of your former prosperity, and of your present sorrows.’

     Ilyás smiled, and said:  ‘If I were to tell you what is happiness and what is misfortune, you would not believe me.  You had better ask my wife.  She is a woman, and what is in her heart is on her tongue.  She will tell you the whole truth.’

     The guest turned towards the curtain.  ‘Well, Granny,’ he cried, ‘tell me how your former happiness compares with your present misfortune.’

     And Sham-Shemagi answered from behind the curtain:  ‘This is what I think about it:  My old man and I lived for fifty years seeking happiness and not finding it; and it is only now, these last two years, since we had nothing left and have lived as laborers, that we have found real happiness, and we wish for nothing better than our present lot.’

     The guests were astonished, and so was the master; he even rose and drew the curtain back, so as to see the old woman’s face.  There she stood with her arms folded, looking at her old husband, and smiling; and he smiled back at her.  The old woman went on:  ‘I speak the truth and do not jest.  For half a century we sought for happiness, and as long as we were rich we never found it.  Now that we have nothing left, and have taken service as laborers, we have found such happiness that we want nothing better.’

     ‘But in what does your happiness consist?’ asked the guest.

     ‘Why, in this,’ she replied, ‘when we were rich my husband and I had so many cares that we had no time to talk to one another, or to think of our souls, or to pray to God.   We had visitors, and had to consider what food to set before them, and what presents to give them, lest they should speak ill of us.  When they left, we had to look after our laborers who were always trying to shirk work and get the best food, while we wanted to get all we could out of them.  So we sinned.  Then we were in fear lest a wolf should kill a foal or a calf, or thieves steal our horses.  We lay awake at night, worrying lest the ewes should overlie their lambs, and we got up again and again to see that all was well.  One thing attended to, another care would spring up:  how, for instance, to get enough fodder for the winter.  And besides that, my old man and I used to disagree.  He would say we must do so and so, and I would differ from him; and then we disputed — sinning again.  So we passed from one trouble to another, from one sin to another, and found no happiness.’

     ‘Well, and now?’

     ‘Now, when my husband and I wake in the morning, we always have a loving word for one another and we live peacefully, having nothing to quarrel about.  We have no care but how best to serve our master.  We work as much as our strength allows and do it with a will, that our master may not lose but profit by us.  When we come in, dinner or supper is ready and there is kumiss to drink.  We have fuel to burn when it is cold and we have our fur cloak.  And we have time to talk, time to think of our souls, and time to pray.  For fifty years we sought happiness, but only now at last have we found it.’

     The guests laughed.  But Ilyás said:  ‘Do not laugh, friends.  It is not a matter for jesting — it is the truth of life.  We also were foolish at first, and wept at the loss of our wealth; but now God has shown us the truth, and we tell it, not for our own consolation, but for your good.’

     And the Mullah said:  ‘That is a wise speech.  Ilyás has spoken the exact truth.  The same is said in Holy Writ.’

     And the guests ceased laughing and became thoughtful.  (1885)


Proverbs 15:16-17  —  Better a little with the fear of the Lord than great wealth with turmoil.  Better a meal of vegetables where there is love than a fattened calf with hatred.

Proverbs 11:2  —  When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom. 

Ecclesiastes 9:17  —  The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools.

Make my life a happy one, O Lord…  Not by shielding me from sorrow and pain, but by strengthening me to bear it if it comes.
Not by taking hardship from me, but by taking all cowardice and fear from my heart as I meet hardships.
Not by making my path easy, but by making me sturdy enough to tread any path.
Not by granting unbroken sunshine, but by keeping my face bright even in the shadows.
Not by making my life always pleasant, but by showing me where others need me most and by making me zealous to be there and to help…
God, make my life a happy one. Amen.   –source unknown