From chapter 1 of The Scourge of God by Yevgeny Zamyatin. Published posthumously in 1938. English translation 2020 by me.
Anxiety was everywhere in Europe: it was in the very air and on the breath.
Everyone was waiting for war, for uprisings, for catastrophes. No one wanted to put money into new enterprises. Factories closed. Jobless crowds roamed the streets and clamored for bread, bread that was becoming dear while money fell in value every day. Gold—eternal, immortal gold—suddenly took sick, people lost faith in it. It was the last holdout: nothing enduring in life was left.
The earth itself had ceased to be solid underfoot. It was like a woman who feels that her swollen belly will soon spew out new creatures into the world, and who rushes about in fear, in alternating spells of heat and cold.
In winter the birds froze in the sky and with a knock fell on the roofs and on the pavement. In summer the trees bloomed three times, and people died from the feverish heat of the earth. One July day, when the earth lay with black, parched, cracked lips, a convulsion passed through her body. She howled in a tremendous round voice. The birds took flight over the trees, screeching, and were afraid to sit in them. Silence fell on the walls, churches, and houses. People fled from the cities and lived in herds under the open sky. Time disappeared. No one could say how many hours or days it lasted.
Covered over in cold sweat, the earth finally calmed down. Everyone rushed to the churches. Through cracks in the arches a glowing sky gaped. Candle flames bent from human exhalations, from the severity of human sins discarded out loud. Pale priests shouted from pulpits that in three days the world would fly to pieces, like a chestnut laid on coals.
This date passed. The earth at times still trembled a little, but she survived. People returned to their homes and began to live again. In the night they knew their old ways had ended, that now life had to be measured in months and days. They lived at twice the pace: in a hurry and short of breath. Like a rich man racing to give everything away before he dies, so the women, sparing nothing, gave themselves away left and right. But they did not want to give birth to children anymore: they no longer needed breasts, and drank medicines to become breastless.
Like the women, fields remained unsown and barren. While the villages emptied, the cities overflowed—there were not enough houses to go around. There was no room to breathe in the theaters and circuses, the music never fell silent, the lights burned all night, red sparkles glittered in silk, in gold, in jewelry—and in the eyes.
These eyes were everywhere, set in dead yellow faces in which only the eyes glowed, like coals. They burned. Like rings of fire, they encircled the entrances of the theaters, churches, and rich houses. They silently watched those who emerged. Everyone remembered one particular woman. She held in her arms a child, wrapped in rags, with a blackened face. She considered him to still be alive, she cradled him. They fled, pinching their noses with perfumed handkerchiefs, fled to live still more quickly, in order to have enough time to spend their gold, and bodies, and souls. They drank wine, pressed their lips to others’ lips, shouted to the musicians, “Louder!” so as not to think or hear.
One day they heard the earth howl again. She strained her black belly convulsively, like a woman in labor, and from out of there surged water. The sea rushed to the capital with a roar, immediately rolling back on itself and taking away houses, trees, people. In the dawn light, heads could still be seen in the pink foam. Then they disappeared. The sun rose. A barge lay sideways on the roof of a house, its bottom green with seaweed that hung like women’s hair, dripping. Huge silver fish, sparkling, thrashed on the pavement. The hungry crowds seized them, shouting, killed them on the stones, and carried them away to eat.
Everyone expected a new wave—and soon it came. Like the first time, it rose in the East and rolled to the West, sweeping away everything in its path: no longer made up of the sea, but of people.
They lived in a way completely different from anything in Europe. In their winter all was white with snow. They walked in sheepskin coats and killed wolves in the streets—they were themselves like wolves. Breaking away from the Baltic coast, from the Danube, from the Dnieper, from their steppes, they rolled—to the south, to the west—faster and faster, like a huge stone tumbling down a mountain.
The earth rumbled indistinctly, as during an earthquake, under the stomp of a thousand horses. It was early spring in the Italian valleys, where the trees stood round and white with blossoms, though there were as yet no leaves. Galloping horsemen, shedding sheepskins, mixed their smell with the almond-blossom–scented wind. They were led by Radagaisus, who was named after the Russian god of hospitality, Radagast. One of his ears had been cut off, so he never removed his wolf skin cap. The Romans fled from him without looking back. The soldiers’ cups had long since grown heavier than their swords.
But there was still plenty of gold in Rome, and the assistance of Uldin, the prince of the Huns—whom many also called Scythians—was bought with gold. Uldin and his Huns stood in the way of Radagaisus. At midday, Uldin reached the Romans, holding a bearded head in a wolf skin cap on a spear. The cap fell, and everyone saw that one of the ears had been cut off. Uldin heard the Romans beat their shields and cheer him. The words were foreign, he made out only his own name. But it had become soft as spoken by these Romans, like meat cooked in water for the elderly.
“Uldin! Uldin!” they cheered.
It made him laugh. He coughed with laughter, and the head on his spear fell into the white dust, where it was picked up and put in a wineskin filled with vinegar to preserve it. It would be displayed to the Romans on the day of Uldin’s triumphal procession.
The Senate assigned April 12th to be that day, in the year of our lord 405 AD.