As with all of Ivan Turgenev’s stories in Zapiski okhotnika (1852; Russian Life in the Interior, 1855; better known as A Sportsman’s Sketches, 1932), the plot of this one is simple and straightforward. After a day of grouse shooting, the hunter who narrates the story starts homeward but becomes lost as night approaches. Growing increasingly uneasy as he wanders beside a wood, then along the boundary of a field, around a knoll, and into a hollow, he stops short at the very edge of an abyss. At the bottom of the precipice he can barely perceive a broad river and a vast plain; he now knows where he is and descends to Bezhin Meadow, where five boys are clustered around two fires while keeping watch over a drove of grazing horses.
The narrator describes the boys, who range in age from fourteen to seven. The one who stands out from the others is twelve-year-old Pavlusha, who appears to be the leader, as the narrator, lying quietly apart from the boys, observes while listening to their conversation. They talk about goblins and water fairies and an apparition on a drowned man’s grave. Suddenly, the dogs are roused, rush off, and are immediately followed by Pavlusha, who returns shortly, saying casually that he thought a wolf might have been the source of the dogs’s excitement. The conversation around the fire resumes, again concerning tales about the dead, the supernatural, wood-demons, and water sprites. The boys share the few potatoes they have been cooking in a small pot, and Pavlusha goes off for some water. When he returns, they settle down to sleep in the deep silence that precedes dawn.
The hunter awakes just before sunrise, nods goodbye to Pavlusha, the only one of the boys who wakes up, and sets off for home as the sun rises and everything returns to life—the river, the hills, the creatures of the meadow. He hears a bell, then the drove of horses passes him, chased by the boys.
In the last paragraph, the hunter adds regretfully that Pavlusha died some months later in a fall from a horse.