Tuesday, March 11, 2008

How NOT to Fast

From Anton Chekhov's short story, 'The Murder" (1895):
Matvey was sitting in the kitchen before a bowl of potato, eating. Close by, near the stove, Aglaia and Dashutka were sitting facing one another, spinning yarn. Between the stove and the table at which Matvey was sitting was stretched an ironing-board; on it stood a cold iron.

'Sister,' Matvey asked, 'let me have a little oil!'

'Who eats oil on a day like this?' asked Aglaia.

'I am not a monk, sister, but a layman. And in my weak health I may take not only oil but milk.'

'Yes, at the factory you may have anything.'

Aglaia took a bottle of Lenten oil from the shelf and banged it angrily down before Matvey, with a malignant smile evidently pleased that he was such a sinner.

'But I tell you, you can't eat oil!' shouted Yakov.

Aglaia and Dashutka started, but Matvey poured the oil into the bowl and went on eating as though he had not heard.

'I tell you, you can't eat oil!' Yakov shouted still more loudly; he turned red all over, snatched up the bowl, lifted it higher that his head, and dashed it with all his force to the ground, so that it flew into fragments. 'Don't dare to speak!' he cried in a furious voice, though Matvey had not said a word. 'Don't dare!' he repeated, and struck his fist on the table.

Matvey turned pale and got up.

'Brother!' he said, still munching--'brother, think what you are about!'

'Out of my house this minute!' shouted Yakov; he loathed Matvey's wrinkled face, and his voice, and the crumbs on his moustache, and the fact that he was munching. 'Out, I tell you!'

'Brother, calm yourself! The pride of hell has confounded you!'

'Hold your tongue!' (Yakov stamped.) 'Go away, you devil!'

'If you care to know,' Matvey went on in a loud voice, as he, too, began to get angry, 'you are a backslider from God and a heretic. The accursed spirits have hidden the true light from you; your prayer is not acceptable to God. Repent before it is too late! The deathbed of the sinner is terrible! Repent, brother!'

Yakov seized him by the shoulders and dragged him away from the table, while he turned whiter than ever, and frightened and bewildered, began muttering, 'What is it? What's the matter?' and, struggling and making efforts to free himself from Yakov's hands, he accidentally caught hold of his shirt near the neck and tore the collar; and it seemed to Aglaia that he was trying to beat Yakov. She uttered a shriek, snatched up the bottle of Lenten oil and with all her force brought it down straight on the skull of the cousin she hated. Matvey reeled, and in one instant his face became calm and indifferent. Yakov, breathing heavily, excited, and feeling pleasure at the gurgle the bottle had made, like a living thing, when it had struck the head, kept him from falling and several times (he remembered this very distinctly) motioned Aglaia towards the iron with his finger; and only when the blood began trickling through his hands and he heard Dashutka's loud wail, and when the ironing-board fell with a crash, and Matvey rolled heavily on it, Yakov left off feeling anger and understood what had happened.

'Let him rot, the factory buck!' Aglaia brought out with repulsion, still keeping the iron in her hand. The white bloodstained kerchief slipped on to her shoulders and her grey hair fell in disorder. 'He's got what he deserved!'
The moral of the story should, I hope, be fairly obvious. (If not, you're in deep trouble.) Read the full story here.

(Note of explanation: The "Lenten oil" in this story is, I imagine, vegetable oil, as opposed to, say, lard. Oil of any kind is not allowed on strict fasting days – but this is a rule which, generally speaking, only the stricter sort of monasteries observe to the letter of the law. This, of course, makes Matvey's "breaking" of the fast all the more minor.)

Photograph: A detail of Chekhov's grave at the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow.

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

Absoultely wonderful !
Thank you for posting this !