Find today’s 1887 word story here: http://www.chekhovshorts.com/stories/033.html
Today’s story, has two men “performing one of the most disagreeable and uninviting of peasants’ duties.” They are in the woods freezing and watching over a corpse. One is young and other is an old simpleton with a “goat beard.” The young man humiliates his companion’s intelligence, which seem to be a pastime of Russians in Chekhov stories. They are interrupted by a man wearing a cassock, but denies being clergy by saying ” I go from one monastery to another…” So what does he do? He never explains, but his uncle owns a brickyard, the destination he is heading. The big reveal for me is that the two peasants have no idea who the corpse was. It was a stranger who was either murdered or committed suicide. Out of obligation they maintain a three day vigil — the period that his “His soul is still hovering here, near his body.” This stood out to me, either tradition or kindness of the people in the village keep watch over the dead (or to make sure their spirits don’t escape and attack the town?), even if they are strangers. The story ends with the young man leaving the simpleton behind to guide the not-monk to the brickyard for some money. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to fear for Syoma, the simpleton who is left behind, but I don’t. I imagine the young man will awaken him and chew him out for letting the fire die. But neither will mention the visitor or five kopecks fee paid for a guide.
The scene for this story was appropriately set in darkness with a bright moon obscured by mist. I can think of no better way to introduce a dead body leaning against a tree covered by a sheet. Chekhov makes a point to introduce us to the corpse before we meet the two peasants standing guard over the body. Of course, we never learn the name, gender, or background of our body in repose. Nevertheless, it is first to be introduced and last to be mentioned in our story. Apparently, the townsfolk see guarding the dead as a last rite, where the soul of the deceased gets to hang out with peasants they don’t know for 3 days before “tasting the joys of Paradise.” The two peasants chosen for this corpse are characteristically uneducated and scraggly for Chekhov’s taste but, more surprisingly, not drunk or drinking. They pass the time alone criticizing the intelligence of the other with such useful advice as “you should listen hard when anything good’s being said, note it well, and keep thinking and thinking.” Their vigil is interrupted by a falsetto voice in the dark as a man approaches in a cassock singing his love of the Lord. Of course he is not a member of the clergy despite his religious exhortations but rather a traveling man that frequents the monastery on his way to visit an uncle who works in the brickyard. It takes a while but he too is finally introduced to our corpse and is immediately flustered and appropriately confused at the situation. After everything is explained, he can no longer venture into the night because of the fear that has entered his mind (cf. Nerves). Eventually, he convinces the smarter of the two peasants to travel with him for five kopecks, leaving the other alone with the body. The story ends with minimal accounting for the corpse as shadows fall and the peasant sleeps. I like this story because of the untold narratives that splinter off in the imagination of the reader. They invite me to imagine scenarios where the corpse is the uncle of the night-time visitor or better yet the victim of a “monastery” serial killer who for the price of 5 kopecks may bag two more souls tonight.