Thirteen year-old Varka is taking care of her cold-hearted, busy employers’ baby son. What will she do, after a long day of hard labor, when she’s dead tired, while the small child keeps crying, and simply won’t fall asleep?
In “Sleepy,” one of his most sharp stories of wit, Anton Chekhov knows in which ways to turn presumptions, the foretold, and the rather predictable into a distilled moment of pure literature.
What, say, would you do just to have a decent nap?
Translated by: Constance Garnett
Night. Varka, the little nurse, a girl of thirteen, is rocking the cradle in which the baby is lying, and humming hardly audibly:
“Hush-a-bye, my baby wee,
While I sing a song for thee.”
A little green lamp is burning before the ikon; there is a string stretched from one end of the room to the other, on which baby-clothes and a pair of big black trousers are hanging. There is a big patch of green on the ceiling from the ikon lamp, and the baby-clothes and the trousers throw long shadows on the stove, on the cradle, and on Varka… When the lamp begins to flicker, the green patch and the shadows come to life, and are set in motion, as though by the wind. It is stuffy. There is a smell of cabbage soup, and of the inside of a boot-shop.
The baby’s crying. For a long while he has been hoarse and exhausted with crying; but he still goes on screaming, and there is no knowing when he will stop. And Varka is sleepy. Her eyes are glued together, her head droops, her neck aches. She cannot move her eyelids or her lips, and she feels as though her face is dried and wooden, as though her head has become as small as the head of a pin.
“Hush-a-bye, my baby wee,” she hums, “while I cook the groats for thee…”
A cricket is churring in the stove. Through the door in the next room the master and the apprentice Afanasy are snoring… The cradle creaks plaintively, Varka murmurs — and it all blends into that soothing music of the night to which it is so sweet to listen, when one is lying in bed. Now that music is merely irritating and oppressive, because it goads her to sleep, and she must not sleep; if Varka — God forbid! — should fall asleep, her master and mistress would beat her.
The lamp flickers. The patch of green and the shadows are set in motion, forcing themselves on Varka’s fixed, half-open eyes, and in her half slumbering brain are fashioned into misty visions. She sees dark clouds chasing one another over the sky, and screaming like the baby. But then the wind blows, the clouds are gone, and Varka sees a broad high road covered with liquid mud; along the high road stretch files of wagons, while people with wallets on their backs are trudging along and shadows flit backwards and forwards; on both sides she can see forests through the cold harsh mist. All at once the people with their wallets and their shadows fall on the ground in the liquid mud. “What is that for?” Varka asks. “To sleep, to sleep!” they answer her. And they fall sound asleep, and sleep sweetly, while crows and magpies sit on the telegraph wires, scream like the baby, and try to wake them.
“Hush-a-bye, my baby wee, and I will sing a song to thee,” murmurs Varka, and now she sees herself in a dark stuffy hut.
Her dead father, Yefim Stepanov, is tossing from side to side on the floor. She does not see him, but she hears him moaning and rolling on the floor from pain. “His guts have burst,” as he says; the pain is so violent that he cannot utter a single word, and can only draw in his breath and clack his teeth like the rattling of a drum:
Her mother, Pelageya, has run to the master’s house to say that Yefim is dying. She has been gone a long time, and ought to be back. Varka lies awake on the stove, and hears her father’s “boo–boo–boo.” And then she hears someone has driven up to the hut. It is a young doctor from the town, who has been sent from the big house where he is staying on a visit. The doctor comes into the hut; he cannot be seen in the darkness, but he can be heard coughing and rattling the door.
“Light a candle,” he says.
“Boo–boo–boo,” answers Yefim.
Pelageya rushes to the stove and begins looking for the broken pot with the matches. A minute passes in silence. The doctor, feeling in his pocket, lights a match.
“In a minute, sir, in a minute,” says Pelageya. She rushes out of the hut, and soon afterwards comes back with a bit of candle.
Yefim’s cheeks are rosy and his eyes are shining, and there is a peculiar keenness in his glance, as though he were seeing right through the hut and the doctor.
“Come, what is it? What are you thinking about?” says the doctor, bending down to him. “Aha! have you had this long?”
“What? Dying, your honour, my hour has come… I am not to stay among the living.”
“Don’t talk nonsense! We will cure you!”
“That’s as you please, your honour, we humbly thank you, only we understand… Since death has come, there it is.”
The doctor spends a quarter of an hour over Yefim, then he gets up and says:
“I can do nothing. You must go into the hospital, there they will operate on you. Go at once… You must go! It’s rather late, they will all be asleep in the hospital, but that doesn’t matter, I will give you a note. Do you hear?”
“Kind sir, but what can he go in?” says Pelageya. “We have no horse.”
“Never mind. I’ll ask your master, he’ll let you have a horse.”
The doctor goes away, the candle goes out, and again there is the sound of “boo–boo–boo.” Half an hour later someone drives up to the hut. A cart has been sent to take Yefim to the hospital. He gets ready and goes…
But now it is a clear bright morning. Pelageya is not at home; she has gone to the hospital to find what is being done to Yefim. Somewhere there is a baby crying, and Varka hears someone singing with her own voice:
“Hush-a-bye, my baby wee, I will sing a song to thee.”
Pelageya comes back; she crosses herself and whispers:
“They put him to rights in the night, but towards morning he gave up his soul to God… The Kingdom of Heaven be his and peace everlasting… They say he was taken too late… He ought to have gone sooner…”
Varka goes out into the road and cries there, but all at once someone hits her on the back of her head so hard that her forehead knocks against a birch tree. She raises her eyes, and sees facing her, her master, the shoemaker.
“What are you about, you scabby slut?” he says. “The child is crying, and you are asleep!”
He gives her a sharp slap behind the ear, and she shakes her head, rocks the cradle, and murmurs her song. The green patch and the shadows from the trousers and the baby-clothes move up and down, nod to her, and soon take possession of her brain again. Again she sees the high road covered with liquid mud. The people with wallets on their backs and the shadows have lain down and are fast asleep. Looking at them, Varka has a passionate longing for sleep; she would lie down with enjoyment, but her mother Pelageya is walking beside her, hurrying her on. They are hastening together to the town to find situations.
“Give alms, for Christ’s sake!” her mother begs of the people they meet. “Show us the Divine Mercy, kind-hearted gentlefolk!”
“Give the baby here!” a familiar voice answers. “Give the baby here!” the same voice repeats, this time harshly and angrily. “Are you asleep, you wretched girl?”
Varka jumps up, and looking round grasps what is the matter: there is no high road, no Pelageya, no people meeting them, there is only her mistress, who has come to feed the baby, and is standing in the middle of the room. While the stout, broad-shouldered woman nurses the child and soothes it, Varka stands looking at her and waiting till she has done. And outside the windows the air is already turning blue, the shadows and the green patch on the ceiling are visibly growing pale, it will soon be morning.
“Take him,” says her mistress, buttoning up her chemise over her bosom; “he is crying. He must be bewitched.”
Varka takes the baby, puts him in the cradle and begins rocking it again. The green patch and the shadows gradually disappear, and now there is nothing to force itself on her eyes and cloud her brain. But she is as sleepy as before, fearfully sleepy! Varka lays her head on the edge of the cradle, and rocks her whole body to overcome her sleepiness, but yet her eyes are glued together, and her head is heavy.
“Varka, heat the stove!” she hears the master’s voice through the door.
So it is time to get up and set to work. Varka leaves the cradle, and runs to the shed for firewood. She is glad. When one moves and runs about, one is not so sleepy as when one is sitting down. She brings the wood, heats the stove, and feels that her wooden face is getting supple again, and that her thoughts are growing clearer.
“Varka, set the samovar!” shouts her mistress.
Varka splits a piece of wood, but has scarcely time to light the splinters and put them in the samovar, when she hears a fresh order:
“Varka, clean the master’s goloshes!”
She sits down on the floor, cleans the goloshes, and thinks how nice it would be to put her head into a big deep golosh, and have a little nap in it… And all at once the golosh grows, swells, fills up the whole room. Varka drops the brush, but at once shakes her head, opens her eyes wide, and tries to look at things so that they may not grow big and move before her eyes.
“Varka, wash the steps outside; I am ashamed for the customers to see them!”
Varka washes the steps, sweeps and dusts the rooms, then heats another stove and runs to the shop. There is a great deal of work: she hasn’t one minute free.
But nothing is so hard as standing in the same place at the kitchen table peeling potatoes. Her head droops over the table, the potatoes dance before her eyes, the knife tumbles out of her hand while her fat, angry mistress is moving about near her with her sleeves tucked up, talking so loud that it makes a ringing in Varka’s ears. It is agonising, too, to wait at dinner, to wash, to sew, there are minutes when she longs to flop on to the floor regardless of everything, and to sleep.
The day passes. Seeing the windows getting dark, Varka presses her temples that feel as though they were made of wood, and smiles, though she does not know why. The dusk of evening caresses her eyes that will hardly keep open, and promises her sound sleep soon. In the evening visitors come.
“Varka, set the samovar!” shouts her mistress. The samovar is a little one, and before the visitors have drunk all the tea they want, she has to heat it five times. After tea Varka stands for a whole hour on the same spot, looking at the visitors, and waiting for orders.
“Varka, run and buy three bottles of beer!”
She starts off, and tries to run as quickly as she can, to drive away sleep.
“Varka, fetch some vodka! Varka, where’s the corkscrew? Varka, clean a herring!”
But now, at last, the visitors have gone; the lights are put out, the master and mistress go to bed.
“Varka, rock the baby!” she hears the last order.
The cricket churrs in the stove; the green patch on the ceiling and the shadows from the trousers and the baby-clothes force themselves on Varka’s half-opened eyes again, wink at her and cloud her mind.
“Hush-a-bye, my baby wee,” she murmurs, “and I will sing a song to thee.”
And the baby screams, and is worn out with screaming. Again Varka sees the muddy high road, the people with wallets, her mother Pelageya, her father Yefim. She understands everything, she recognises everyone, but through her half sleep she cannot understand the force which binds her, hand and foot, weighs upon her, and prevents her from living. She looks round, searches for that force that she may escape from it, but she cannot find it. At last, tired to death, she does her very utmost, strains her eyes, looks up at the flickering green patch, and listening to the screaming, finds the foe who will not let her live.
That foe is the baby.
She laughs. It seems strange to her that she has failed to grasp such a simple thing before. The green patch, the shadows, and the cricket seem to laugh and wonder too.
The hallucination takes possession of Varka. She gets up from her stool, and with a broad smile on her face and wide unblinking eyes, she walks up and down the room. She feels pleased and tickled at the thought that she will be rid directly of the baby that binds her hand and foot… Kill the baby and then sleep, sleep, sleep…
Laughing and winking and shaking her fingers at the green patch, Varka steals up to the cradle and bends over the baby. When she has strangled him, she quickly lies down on the floor, laughs with delight that she can sleep, and in a minute is sleeping as sound as the dead.
Image: Guim Tió Zarraluki
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