Absolution  and  Eternal  Refuge
(The Master and Margarita, Chapter 32)

Mikhail Bulgakov

How sad, ye gods, how sad the world is at evening, how mysterious the mists over the swamps.  You will know it when you have wandered astray in those mists, when you have suffered greatly before dying, when you have walked through the world carrying an unbearable burden.  You know it too when you are weary and ready to leave this earth without regret; its mists, its swamps and its rivers; ready to give yourself into the arms of death with a light heart, knowing that death alone can comfort you.

The magic black horses were growing tired, carrying their riders more slowly as inexorable night began to overtake them.  Sensing it behind him even the irrepressible Behemoth was hushed, and digging his claws into the saddle he flew on in silence, his tail streaming behind him.

Night laid its black cloth over forest and meadow, night lit a scattering of sad little lights far away below, lights that for Margarita and the master were now meaningless and alien.  Night overtook the cavalcade, spread itself over them from above and began to seed the lowering sky with white specks of stars.

Night thickened, flew alongside, seized the riders' cloaks and pulling them from their shoulders, unmasked their disguises.  When Margarita opened her eyes in the freshening wind she saw the features of all the galloping riders change, and when a full, purple moon rose towards them over the edge of a forest, all deception vanished and fell away into the marsh beneath as their magical, trumpery clothing faded into the mist.

It would have been hard now to recognize Koroviev-Faggot, self-styled interpreter to the mysterious professor who needed none, in the figure who now rode immediately alongside Woland at Margarita's right hand.  In place of the person who had left Sparrow Hills in shabby circus clothes under the name of Koroviev-Faggot, there now galloped, the gold chain of his bridle chinking softly, a knight clad in dark violet with a grim and unsmiling face.  He leaned his chin on his chest, looked neither at the moon nor the earth, thinking his own thoughts as he flew along beside Woland.

"Why has he changed so?"  Margarita asked Woland above the hiss of the wind.

"That knight once made an ill-timed joke," replied Woland, turning his fiery eye on Margarita.  "Once when we were talking of darkness and light he made a somewhat unfortunate pun.  As a penance he was condemned to spend rather more rime as a practical joker than he had bargained for.  But tonight is one of those moments when accounts are settled.  Our knight has paid his score and the account is closed."

Night stripped away, too, Behemoth's fluffy tail and his fur and scattered it in handfuls.  The creature who had been the pet of the prince of darkness was revealed as a slim youth, a page-demon, the greatest jester that there has ever been.  He too was now silent and flew without a sound, holding up his young face towards the light that poured from the moon.

On the flank, gleaming in steel armor, rode Azazello, his face transformed by the moon.  Gone was the idiotic wall eye, gone was his false squint.  Both Azazello's eyes were alike, empty and black, his face white and cold.  Azazello was now in his real guise, the demon of the waterless desert, the murderer-demon.

Margarita could not see herself but she could see the change that had come over the master.  His hair had whitened in the moonlight and had gathered behind him into a mane that flew in the wind.  Whenever the wind blew the master's cloak away from his legs, Margarita could see the spurs that winked at the heels of his jackboots.  Like the page-demon the master rode staring at the moon, though smiling at it as though it were a dear, familiar friend, and a habit acquired in room No. 118 talking to himself.

Woland, too, rode in his true aspect.  Margarita could not say what the reins of his horse were made of; she thought that they might be strings of moonlight and the horse itself only a blob of darkness, its mane a cloud and its rider's spurs glinting stars.

They rode for long in silence until the country beneath began to change.  The grim forests slipped away into the gloom below, drawing with them the dull curved blades of rivers.  The moonlight was now reflected from scattered boulders with dark gulleys between them.

Woland reined in his horse on the flat, grim top of a hill and the riders followed him at a walk, hearing the crunch of flints and pebbles under the horses' shoes.  The moon flooded the ground with a harsh green light and soon Margarita noticed on the bare expanse a chair, with the vague figure of a man seated on it, apparently deaf or lost in thought.  He seemed not to hear the stony ground shuddering beneath the weight of the horses and he remained unmoved as the riders approached.

In the brilliant moonlight, brighter than an arc-light, Margarita could see the seemingly blind man wringing his hands and staring at the moon with unseeing eyes.  Then she saw that beside the massive stone chair, which sparkled fitfully in the moonlight, there lay a huge, grey dog with pointed ears, gazing like his master, at the moon.  At the man's feet were the fragments of a jug and a reddish-black pool of liquid.  The riders halted.

"We have read your novel," said Woland, turning to the master, "and we can only say that unfortunately it is not finished.  I would like to show you your hero.  He has been sitting here and sleeping for nearly two thousand years, but when the full moon comes he is tortured, as you see, with insomnia.  It plagues not only him, but his faithful guardian, his dog.  If it is true that cowardice is the worst sin of all, then the dog at least is not guilty of it.  The only thing that frightened this brave animal was a thunderstorm.  But one who loves must share the fate of his loved one."

"What is he saying?"  asked Margarita, and her calm face was veiled with compassion.

"He always says" said Woland, "the same thing.  He is saying that there is no peace for him by moonlight and that his duty is a hard one.  He says it always, whether he is asleep or awake, and he always sees the same thing a path of moonlight.  He longs to walk along it and talk to his prisoner, Ha-Notsri, because he claims he had more to say to him on that distant fourteenth day of Nisan.  But he never succeeds in reaching that path and no one ever comes near him.  So it is not surprising that he talks to himself.  For an occasional change he adds that most of all he detests his immortality and his incredible fame.  He claims that he would gladly change places with that vagrant, Matthew the Levite."

"Twenty-four thousand moons in penance for one moon long ago, isn't that too much?"  asked Margarita.

" Are you going to repeat the business with Frieda again?"  said Woland.  "But you needn't distress yourself, Margarita.  All will be as it should; that is how the world is made."

"Let him go!"  Margarita suddenly shouted in a piercing voice, as she had shouted when she was a witch.  Her cry shattered a rock in the mountainside, sending it bouncing down into the abyss with a deafening crash, but Margarita could not tell if it was the falling rock or the sound of satanic laughter.  Whether it was or not, Woland laughed and said to Margarita:

"Shouting at the mountains will do no good.  Landslides are common here and he is used to them by now.  There is no need for you to plead for him, Margarita, because his cause has already been pleaded by the man he longs to join."  Woland turned round to the master and went on: "Now is your chance to complete your novel with a single sentence."

The master seemed to be expecting this while he had been standing motionless, watching the seated Procurator.  He cupped his hands to a trumpet and shouted with such force that the echo sprang back at him from the bare, treeless hills:

"You are free!  Free!  He is waiting for you!"

The mountains turned the master's voice to thunder and the thunder destroyed them.  The grim cliffsides crumbled and fell.  Only the platform with the stone chair remained.  Above the black abyss into which the mountains had vanished glowed a great city topped by glittering idols above a garden overgrown with the luxuriance of two thousand years.  Into the garden stretched the Procurator's long-awaited path of moonlight and the first to bound along it was the dog with pointed ears.  The man in the white cloak with the blood-red lining rose from his chair and shouted something in a hoarse, uneven voice.  It was impossible to tell if he was laughing or crying, or what he was shouting.  He could only be seen hurrying along the moonlight path after his faithful watchdog.

"Am I to follow him?"  the master enquired uneasily, with a touch on his reins.

"No," answered Woland, "why try to pursue what is completed?"

"That way, then?"  asked the master, turning and pointing back to where rose the city they had just left, with its onion-domed monasteries, fragmented sunlight reflected in its windows.

"No, not that way either," replied Woland, his voice rolling down the hillsides like a dense torrent.  "You are a romantic, master!  Your novel has been read by the man that your hero Pilate, whom you have just released, so longs to see."  Here Woland turned to Margarita: "Margarita Nikolayevna!  I am convinced that you have done your utmost to devise the best possible future for the master, but believe me, what I am offering you and what Yeshua has begged to be given to you is even better!  Let us leave them alone with each other," said Woland, leaning out of his saddle towards the master and pointing to the departing Procurator.  "Let's not disturb them.  Who knows, perhaps they may agree on something."  At this Woland waved his hand towards Jerusalem, which vanished.

"And there too," Woland pointed backwards.  "What good is your little basement now?"  The reflected sun faded from the windows.  "Why go back?"  Woland continued, quietly and persuasively.  " 0 thrice romantic master, wouldn't you like to stroll under the cherry blossom with your love in the daytime and listen to Schubert in the evening?  Won't you enjoy writing by candlelight with a goose quill?  Don't you want, like Faust, to sit over a retort in the hope of fashioning a new homunculus?  That's where you must go where a house and an old servant are already waiting for you and the candles are lit although they are soon to be put out because you will arrive at dawn.  That is your way, master, that way!  Farewell I must go!"

"Farewell!" cried Margarita and the master together.  Then the black Woland, taking none of the paths, dived into the abyss, followed with a roar by his retinue.  The mountains, the platform, the moonbeam pathway, Jerusalem all were gone.  The black horses, too, had vanished.  The master and Margarita saw the promised dawn, which rose in instant succession to the midnight moon.  In the first rays of the morning the master and his beloved crossed a little moss-grown stone bridge.  They left the stream behind them and followed a sandy path.

"Listen to the silence," said Margarita to the master, the sand rustling under her bare feet.  "Listen to the silence and enjoy it.  Here is the peace that you never knew in your lifetime.  Look, there is your home for eternity, which is your reward.  I can already see a Venetian window and a climbing vine which grows right up to the roof.  It's your home, your home for ever.  In the evenings people will come to see you people who interest you, people who will never upset you.  They will play to you and sing to you and you will see how beautiful the room is by candlelight.  You shall go to sleep with your dirty old cap on, you shall go to sleep with a smile on your lips.  Sleep will give you strength and make you wise.  And you can never send me away I shall watch over your sleep."

So said Margarita as she walked with the master towards their everlasting home.  Margarita's words seemed to him to flow like the whispering stream behind them, and the master's memory, his accursed, needling memory, began to fade.  He had been freed, just as he had set free the character he had created.  His hero had now vanished irretrievably into the abyss; on the night of Sunday, the day of the Resurrection, pardon had been granted to the astrologer's son, fifth Procurator of Judaea, the cruel Pontius Pilate.

Mikhail Bulgakov  (18911940)
"The Master and Margarita", Chapter 32, 19291940
Translated from Russian by Michael Glenny