Ecclesiastes echoed by Leo Tolstoy

Jan 31, 2017

The Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy, told a story that wonderfully illustrates Solomon’s fruitless search for satisfaction. A search repeated in all our lives so much so that the stupidity of Tolstoy’s main character is too easily seen in our own pursuits and attitudes.
The short story is entitled, How Much Land Does a Man Need. You could try picking up a copy of Tolstoy’s works, or a one-click purchase of a Kindle version. You could read it online if you don’t want to spend a dime; or you could read the final part of the story below…

WARNING…SPOILER ALERT…

“And what will be the price?” asked Pahom.

“Our price is always the same: one thousand roubles a day.”

Pahom did not understand.  “A day? What measure is that? How many acres would that be?”

“We do not know how to reckon it out,” said the Chief. “We sell it by the day. As much as you can go round on your feet in a day is yours, and the price is one thousand roubles a day.”

Pahom was surprised. “But in a day you can get round a large tract of land,” he said.

The Chief laughed. “It will all be yours!” said he. “But there is one condition: If you don’t return on the same day to the spot whence you started, your money is lost.”

“But how am I to mark the way that I have gone?”

“Why, we shall go to any spot you like, and stay there. You must start from that spot and make your round, taking a spade with you. Wherever you think necessary, make a mark. At every turning, dig a hole and pile up the turf; then afterwards we will go round with a plough from hole to hole. You may make as large a circuit as you please, but before the sun sets you must return to the place you started from. All the land you cover will be yours.”

…The Chief came up to Pahom and stretched out his arm towards the plain: “See,” said he, “all this, as far as your eye can reach, is ours. You may have any part of it you like.”

Pahom’s eyes glistened: it was all virgin soil, as flat as the palm of your hand, as black as the seed of a poppy, and in the hollows different kinds of grasses grew breast high.

The Chief took off his fox-fur cap, placed it on the ground and said: “This will be the mark. Start from here, and return here again. All the land you go round shall be yours.”

Pahom took out his money and put it on the cap. Then he took off his outer coat, remaining in his sleeveless under coat. He unfastened his girdle and tied it tight below his stomach, put a little bag of bread into the breast of his coat, and tying a flask of water to his girdle, he drew up the tops of his boots, took the spade from his man, and stood ready to start. He considered for some moments which way he had better go–it was tempting everywhere.

“No matter,” he concluded, “I will go towards the rising sun.”

He turned his face to the east, stretched himself, and waited for the sun to appear above the rim.

“I must lose no time,” he thought, “and it is easier walking while it is still cool.”

The sun’s rays had hardly flashed above the horizon, before Pahom, carrying the spade over his shoulder, went down into the steppe.

Pahom started walking neither slowly nor quickly. After having gone a thousand yards he stopped, dug a hole and placed pieces of turf one on another to make it more visible. Then he went on; and now that he had walked off his stiffness he quickened his pace. After a while he dug another hole.

Pahom looked back. The hillock could be distinctly seen in the sunlight, with the people on it, and the glittering tires of the cartwheels. At a rough guess Pahom concluded that he had walked three miles. It was growing warmer; he took off his under-coat, flung it across his shoulder, and went on again. It had grown quite warm now; he looked at the sun, it was time to think of breakfast.

“The first shift is done, but there are four in a day, and it is too soon yet to turn. But I will just take off my boots,” said he to himself.

He sat down, took off his boots, stuck them into his girdle, and went on. It was easy walking now.

“I will go on for another three miles,” thought he, “and then turn to the left. The spot is so fine, that it would be a pity to lose it. The further one goes, the better the land seems.”

He went straight on a for a while, and when he looked round, the hillock was scarcely visible and the people on it looked like black ants, and he could just see something glistening there in the sun.

“Ah,” thought Pahom, “I have gone far enough in this direction, it is time to turn. Besides I am in a regular sweat, and very thirsty.”

He stopped, dug a large hole, and heaped up pieces of turf. Next he untied his flask, had a drink, and then turned sharply to the left. He went on and on; the grass was high, and it was very hot.

Pahom began to grow tired: he looked at the sun and saw that it was noon. “Well,” he thought, “I must have a rest.”

He sat down, and ate some bread and drank some water; but he did not lie down, thinking that if he did he might fall asleep. After sitting a little while, he went on again. At first he walked easily: the food had strengthened him; but it had become terribly hot, and he felt sleepy; still he went on, thinking: “An hour to suffer, a life-time to live.”

He went a long way in this direction also, and was about to turn to the left again, when he perceived a damp hollow: “It would be a pity to leave that out,” he thought. “Flax would do well there.” So he went on past the hollow, and dug a hole on the other side of it before he turned the corner. Pahom looked towards the hillock. The heat made the air hazy: it seemed to be quivering, and through the haze the people on the hillock could scarcely be seen.

“Ah!” thought Pahom, “I have made the sides too long; I must make this one shorter.” And he went along the third side, stepping faster. He looked at the sun: it was nearly half way to the horizon, and he had not yet done two miles of the third side of the square. He was still ten miles from the goal.

“No,” he thought, “though it will make my land lopsided, I must hurry back in a straight line now. I might go too far, and as it is I have a great deal of land.”

So Pahom hurriedly dug a hole, and turned straight towards the hillock.

Pahom went straight towards the hillock, but he now walked with difficulty. He was done up with the heat, his bare feet were cut and bruised, and his legs began to fail. He longed to rest, but it was impossible if he meant to get back before sunset. The sun waits for no man, and it was sinking lower and lower.

“Oh dear,” he thought, “if only I have not blundered trying for too much! What if I am too late?”

He looked towards the hillock and at the sun. He was still far from his goal, and the sun was already near the rim. Pahom walked on and on; it was very hard walking, but he went quicker and quicker. He pressed on, but was still far from the place. He began running, threw away his coat, his boots, his flask, and his cap, and kept only the spade which he used as a support.

“What shall I do,” he thought again, “I have grasped too much, and ruined the whole affair. I can’t get there before the sun sets.”

And this fear made him still more breathless. Pahom went on running, his soaking shirt and trousers stuck to him, and his mouth was parched. His breast was working like a blacksmith’s bellows, his heart was beating like a hammer, and his legs were giving way as if they did not belong to him. Pahom was seized with terror lest he should die of the strain.

Though afraid of death, he could not stop. “After having run all that way they will call me a fool if I stop now,” thought he. And he ran on and on, and drew near and heard the Bashkirs yelling and shouting to him, and their cries inflamed his heart still more. He gathered his last strength and ran on.

The sun was close to the rim, and cloaked in mist looked large, and red as blood. Now, yes now, it was about to set! The sun was quite low, but he was also quite near his aim. Pahom could already see
the people on the hillock waving their arms to hurry him up. He could see the fox-fur cap on the ground, and the money on it, and the Chief sitting on the ground holding his sides. And Pahom remembered his dream.

“There is plenty of land,” thought he, “but will God let me live on it? I have lost my life, I have lost my life! I shall never reach that spot!”

Pahom looked at the sun, which had reached the earth: one side of it had already disappeared. With all his remaining strength he rushed on, bending his body forward so that his legs could hardly follow fast enough to keep him from falling. Just as he reached the hillock it suddenly grew dark. He looked up–the sun had already set. He gave a cry: “All my labor has been in vain,” thought he, and was about to stop, but he heard the Bashkirs still shouting, and remembered that though to him, from below, the sun seemed to have set, they on the hillock could still see it. He took a long breath and ran up the hillock. It was still light there. He reached the top and saw the cap. Before it sat the Chief laughing and holding his sides. Again Pahom remembered his dream, and he uttered a cry: his legs gave way beneath him, he fell forward and reached the cap with his hands.

“Ah, what a fine fellow!” exclaimed the Chief. “He has gained much land!”

Pahom’s servant came running up and tried to raise him, but he saw that blood was flowing from his mouth. Pahom was dead!

The Bashkirs clicked their tongues to show their pity.

His servant picked up the spade and dug a grave long enough for Pahom to lie in, and buried him in it. Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.”