20 October 2006

Whose Name No One Knew

Filed under: First Lines — ktismatics @ 9:28 am

Old Semyon, whose nickname was Preacher, and a young Tartar, whose name no one knew, were sitting by a campfire on the bank of the river; the other three ferrymen were inside the hut.

– Anton Chekhov, “In Exile,” 1892

“Well, this is no paradise, of course,” Preacher told the young Tartar. A few yards away the dark, cold river flowed, growling and sluicing against the pitted clay banks as it sped on to the distant sea… Far away on the opposite bank crawling snakes of fire were dying down then reappearing – last year’s grass being burned. Beyond the snakes there was darkness again.

“God give everyone such a life,” said old Preacher as he took another pull at the bottle. No wife or children or family, no pleasures or comforts; just live. For twenty-two years he has shunted travelers across the river into exile. He has witnessed the foolishness of those who yearned for more, who brought wives and children into this remote waste only to see them flee, sicken, die. The devil lures the exile into hope of a happy life; listen to the devil even once and you’re lost. “I don’t want anything, I’m not afraid of anyone, and the way I see it there’s no man richer or freer than I am.”

The nameless young Tartar struggled to find the words in the language of this cold and empty land. That his beautiful and clever wife might come from his distant village; that she might be with him for three months, a month, a day. “Better one day of happiness than nothing,” stammered the young man, and he wept.

In the morning a call came from the other shore, then a pistol shot, summoning the ferry. The ferrymen, shivering and still sleepy, clambered into the ungainly boat. They took up the crablike oars and the boat began crawling across the dark water. In the darkness it looked as if the men were sitting on some antediluvian animal with long paws, and sailing to a cold, bleak land, the very one of which we sometimes dream in nightmares. The thin old gentleman on the far shore was in a hurry; his consumptive daughter was worse again, and he’d heard of new doctor in Anastasyevska. Manning the tiller, a triumphant and nearly joyful Preacher steered the old man across in pursuit his futile hope. “What freaks,” scoffed Preacher as he watched the old man gallop across the frozen dawn.

The Tartar went up to Preacher and, looking at him with hatred and abhorrence, trembling, mixing Tartar words with his broken Russian, said, “He is good – good. You bad! You bad! Gentleman is good soul, excellent, and you beast, you bad! Gentleman alive and you dead… God created man to be live, be joyful, be sad and sorrow, but you want nothing… You stone – and God not love you, love gentleman!” Back in the frigid hut, Preacher and the three ferrymen heard a sound like the howling of a dog. It was the young Tartar, outside by the fire. “He’ll get used to it,” Preacher remarked, and instantly he went back to sleep.



1 Comment »

  1. oh yeah.


    Comment by stacy — 20 October 2006 @ 6:26 pm

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