See today’s 3452 word Easter story at http://www.chekhovshorts.com/stories/058.html
What excellent timing for this review to fall on Easter weekend. It was purely by chance. This first person account of a river crossing in order to attend Easter festivities is full of atmosphere that seems more creepy than celebratory. I’m not sure if Chekhov intended it that way, but for a while I felt this was a journey across the River Styx into Hades. Lines like “At the water’s edge barrels of tar were flaring like huge camp fires. Their reflections, crimson as the rising moon…” and “The burning barrels lighted up their own smoke and the long shadows of men flitting about the fire…” helped give that impression. And Ieronim, the ferry-boat guide, reminded me a little of Charon at first. Pulling the boat along with one hand on the line felt like tedious rowing in the underworld. But the narrator and Ieronim see it is a beautiful night. The tragedy is that the ferry-boat guide with a “delicately sensitive soul” has not been relieved of his duties and is missing hymns written by his best friend and colleague who passed last year. I never heard that “if anyone dies at Easter he goes straight to the kingdom of heaven,” but apparently it is believed in this community. Also there is also a line about the vanity of sorrow and reflection. I don’t remember any verse in the bible stating that, but I can see how wallowing doesn’t help keep a believer on the righteous path. My final comment is about words in songs, or in this case, hymns of praise. Often I find myself shocked when I learn later that the words to a song were different that I remembered them. Also, growing up in a church we sang songs repeatedly, but often the lyrics didn’t have the impact as intended. Ieronim cherishes the written words and their meaning, where the rest of the audience attending the Easter celebration “had a lively expression of triumph, but not one was listening to what was being sung and taking it in…” We are left feeling sad for Ieronim who did not attend and is still stuck working the river the next morning, but I also feel like he was lucky to have known Nikolay and to have shared tender moments with him in song and spirit.
Aside from the unexpected irony of having this story fall on the eve of Easter weekend, I also found it ironic that the theme of the story could have prompted a duplication in titles for Chekhov with “Love” (yesterday’s story) being an equally credible label. I did not experience the same creepy sensation as Travis while crossing the river with our narrator and Ieronim. There was something beautiful in the night and the celebration that was being reflected in the flooded river. I enjoyed how Chekhov gave life to the stars as if they were intentionally bathing in the watery reflection below. The story entrusted to the narrator by Ieronim is of deep friendship and a love that transcends anything in yesterday’s story. A talented monk, Nikolay, had died earlier in the day and the loss was weighing heavy on Ieronim. At first, the narrator feigns interest but as the story of Nikolay’s talent and the admiration and respect that Ieronim had for him is revealed, it becomes difficult not to take interest. Ieronim speaks of an “extraodrinary gift” of Nikolay to write hymns of praise. The way Ieronim told of this gift, as if it were a secret to protect, led me to think he was revealing only part of the story. There was an emotion running through his description of Nikolay’s talent for writing that is genuine and sincere. I couldn’t help but think that Chekhov was inserting subtle comparisons about what makes a good short story with what makes a good hymn: “For brevity he packs many thoughts into one phrase, and how smooth and complete it all is!” For his talent, Nikolay was shunned and rejected by the incompetent monastic elite. Only Ieronim saw value in his creation and Nikolay loved him for it. “He would embrace me, stroke my head, speak to me in caressing words as to a little child. He would shut his cell, make me sit down beside him, and begin to read…” It is here that I finally began to suspect the unthinkable for Chekhov’s time. Dare I say it? Was he writing about homosexual love or is this over-interpretation on my part? I have no reason to suspect it was romantic love but I have no reason to doubt it was true love.
“Where he went I would go. If I were not there he would miss me. And he cared more for me than for anyone, and all because I used to weep over his hymns. It makes me sad to remember. Now I feel just like an orphan or a widow.”
They finally reach the shore where Easter festivities are well underway just as Ieronim finishes his story. He has been working the ferry all night without relief. I couldn’t help but wonder if the truth of their relationship was known and this solitary monotonous work was part of his punishment. Our narrator, whose profession was revealed to Ieronim but not to the reader, was moved by the story. He is able to see past the “perfect chaos” and the ebb and flow of the crowd gathered for the holiday. Although he catches the “infection of the universal joyful excitement” he also feels sorry for Ieronim. The crowd is bathed in song but it moves them not–they do not reflect upon it the way Ieronim would have. Unable to shake the story of Nikolay, he imagines what he must have been like in life. As morning dawns and he makes his way back to the ferry, he is surprised to see Ieronim still manning the ferry. He has “an extraordinarily sad and exhausted look.” As others board the boat to cross the river, Ieronim stares at a particular rosy face of a young woman. Lest we think otherwise, Chekhov makes a point to end the story with a clear explanation for his fascination:
“There was little that was masculine in that prolonged gaze. It seemed to me that Ieronim was looking in the woman’s face for the soft and tender features of his dead friend.”
A love was lost without the ability to mourn or rejoice in his talent on a day when it was most appropriate. I thoroughly enjoyed this story even though I’m sure others will deride me for over-interpretation. There is more love in this story than any other narrative to-date in Chekhov’s lineup.