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    a painting of a sunset over the Volga River

    The Student

    This classic short story asks what it means to live in the light of Easter every day.

    By Anton Chekhov

    April 10, 2023

    At first the weather was fine and still. The thrushes were calling, and in the swamps close by some living creature droned plaintively, with a sound like blowing into an empty bottle. A snipe flew by, and the shot aimed at it echoed cheerfully in the spring air. But when it began to get dark in the forest, an unwelcome, penetrating wind blew up from the east, and everything sank into silence. Needles of ice stretched across the pools, and it felt cheerless, remote, and lonely in the forest. There was a whiff of winter.

    Ivan Velikopolsky, the son of a sacristan, and a student of the clerical academy, was returning home along the path across the water meadows after a shooting expedition. His fingers were numb and his face burned in the wind. It seemed to him that this sudden onset of cold had destroyed the order and harmony of things, that nature itself felt ill at ease, and that was why the evening shadows thickened more rapidly than usual. All around it was deserted and somehow peculiarly gloomy. The only light was one gleaming in the widows’ vegetable plots near the river; the village, over three miles away, and everything in the distance all round was plunged in the cold evening mists. The student remembered that, as he had left the house, his mother was sitting barefoot on the floor in the entryway cleaning the samovar, while his father lay on the stove coughing. As it was Good Friday nothing had been cooked, and the student was terribly hungry. And now, shrinking from the cold, he thought of similar winds blowing in the time of Rurik, Ivan the Terrible, and Peter the Great – during their reigns there had been just the same desperate poverty and hunger, the same thatched roofs with holes in them, ignorance, misery, the same desolation around, the same darkness, the same feeling of oppression – all these had existed, did exist, and would exist, and the lapse of a thousand years would make life no better. And he did not want to go home.

    a painting of a sunset over the Volga River

    Aristarkh Lentulov, Sunset on the Volga, oil, 1928

    The vegetable plots were called “widows’” because they were kept by two widows, mother and daughter. A campfire was burning brightly with a crackling sound, throwing out light far around on the plowed earth. The widow Vasilisa, a tall, fat old woman in a man’s sheepskin coat, was standing by and gazing pensively into the fire; her daughter Lukerya, a little pockmarked woman with a stupid-looking face, was sitting on the ground, washing a cauldron and spoons. Apparently they had just had supper. There was a sound of men’s voices; it was the laborers watering their horses at the river.

    “So winter’s back again,” said the student, going up to the campfire. “Good evening.”

    Vasilisa started, but at once recognized him and smiled cordially.

    “Heavens, I didn’t know it was you,” she said. “That means you’ll be a rich man one day.”

    They talked. Vasilisa, a woman of the world who had been in service with the gentry – first as a wet-nurse, afterwards as a nanny – expressed herself with refinement, and a soft, sedate smile never left her face; her daughter Lukerya, a village peasant woman who had been beaten by her husband, simply screwed up her eyes at the student and said nothing. She had a strange expression, as if she were a deaf-mute.

    “It was on a cold night like this that the Apostle Peter warmed himself by a fire,” said the student, stretching out his hands towards the flames. “That is to say, it must have been cold then, too. Ah, what a terrible night it must have been, granny! A dreadfully sad, never-ending night!”

    He peered into the surrounding darkness, shook his head abruptly, and asked, “I suppose you were at the Twelve Readings from the Gospels yesterday?”

    “Yes,” Vasilisa replied.

    If you remember, at the Last Supper Peter said to Jesus, “I am ready to go with thee into darkness and unto death.” And our Lord answered him thus: “I say unto thee, Peter, before the cock croweth thou wilt have denied me thrice.”

    After the supper, Jesus went through the agony of death in the garden and prayed, and poor Peter was weary in spirit and faint, his eyelids were heavy, and he couldn’t fight off sleep; he fell asleep. Then as you know, Judas the same night kissed Jesus and betrayed him to the torturers. They took him bound to the high priest and beat him, while Peter, exhausted and troubled by anguish and alarm – he didn’t have enough sleep, you understand – and feeling that something awful was going to happen on earth at any moment, followed behind. He loved Jesus passionately, to distraction, and now he saw from far off how they beat him.

    Lukerya put down the spoons and fixed an immovable stare upon the student.

    “They came to the high priest’s,” he went on.

    They began to question Jesus, and meantime the laborers made a fire in the yard as it was cold, and warmed themselves. Peter, too, stood with them near the fire and warmed himself, as I am now. A woman, seeing him, said, “This man was with Jesus, too” – that is as much as to say that he, too, should be taken to be questioned.

    And all the laborers that were standing near the fire must have looked at him suspiciously and sternly, as he was taken aback and said, “I know him not.”

    A little while after, again someone recognized him as one of Jesus’ disciples and said, “Thou, too, art one of them,” but again he denied it.

    And for the third time someone turned to him: “Why, did I not see thee with him in the garden today?” For the third time he denied it. And immediately after that a cock crowed, and Peter, looking from afar at Jesus, remembered the words He had spoken to him at supper. He remembered, he came to himself, went out of the yard and wept bitterly – bitterly. In the Gospel it is written: “He went out and wept bitterly.” I can imagine that quiet, terribly dark garden, those dull sobs, barely audible in the silence …

    The student sighed and sank into thought. Still smiling, Vasilisa suddenly broke into sobs and large, copious tears flowed freely down her cheeks. She shielded her face from the fire with her sleeve, as though ashamed of her tears, while Lukerya stared at the student and flushed crimson. Her expression became strained and heavy, like that of someone stifling a dreadful pain.

    The laborers came back from the river, and one of them riding a horse was quite near, and the light from the fire quivered upon him. The student said goodnight to the widows and went on. And again the darkness was about him and his fingers began to be numb. A cruel wind was blowing – winter had really returned with a vengeance, and it did not seem as if Easter Sunday was only the day after tomorrow.

    Now the student thought of Vasilisa: since she had shed tears, all that had happened to Peter the night before the crucifixion must have had some special significance for her.

    He glanced back. The solitary fire flickered calmly in the darkness, and no figures could be seen near it now. Once again the student reflected that, since Vasilisa had wept and her daughter had been deeply touched, then obviously what he had just been telling them about events centuries ago had some significance for the present, for both women, for this village, for himself, and for all people. The old woman had wept, not because he could tell the story touchingly, but because Peter was close to her and because her whole being was concerned with what was passing in Peter’s soul.

    His heart suddenly thrilled with joy, and he even stopped for a minute to catch his breath. “The past,” he thought, “is linked to the present by an unbroken chain of events, each flowing from another.” And it seemed to him that he had just witnessed both ends of this chain; when he touched one end, the other started shaking.

    After crossing the river by the ferry and climbing the hill, he looked at his native village and towards the West, where a narrow strip of cold crimson sunset was glimmering. And he reflected how truth and beauty, which had guided human life there in the garden and in the yard of the high priest’s palace and had continued unbroken to the present, were the most important parts of the life of man, and of the whole of terrestrial life. A feeling of youthfulness, health, vigor – he was only twenty-two – and an inexpressibly sweet expectation of happiness, of a mysterious unfamiliar happiness, took possession of him. And life seemed entrancing, wonderful, and endowed with sublime meaning.

    Translated by Constance Garnett

    Source: Easter Stories: Classic Tales for the Holy Season (Plough, 2015) 277–282.

    Contributed By AntonChekhov Anton Chekhov

    Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860–1904) was a Russian playwright and short story writer, widely regarded as one of the greatest writers of all time.

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