A.P. Chekhov -
In Passion Week
"Go along, they are ringing already; and mind, don't be naughty
in church or God will punish you."
My mother thrusts a few copper coins upon me, and, instantly
forgetting about me, runs into the kitchen with an iron that
needs reheating. I know well that after confession I shall not
be allowed to eat or drink, and so, before leaving the house, I
force myself to eat a crust of white bread, and to drink two
glasses of water. It is quite spring in the street. The roads
are all covered with brownish slush, in which future paths are
already beginning to show; the roofs and side-walks are dry; the
fresh young green is piercing through the rotting grass of last
year, under the fences. In the gutters there is the merry
gurgling and foaming of dirty water, in which the sunbeams do
not disdain to bathe. Chips, straws, the husks of sunflower
seeds are carried rapidly along in the water, whirling round and
sticking in the dirty foam. Where, where are those chips
swimming to? It may well be that from the gutter they may pass
into the river, from the river into the sea, and from the sea
into the ocean. I try to imagine to myself that long terrible
journey, but my fancy stops short before reaching the sea.
A cabman drives by. He clicks to his horse, tugs at the reins,
and does not see that two street urchins are hanging on the back
of his cab. I should like to join them, but think of confession,
and the street urchins begin to seem to me great sinners.
"They will be asked on the day of judgment: 'Why did you play
pranks and deceive the poor cabman?' " I think. "They will begin
to defend themselves, but evil spirits will seize them, and drag
them to fire everlasting. But if they obey their parents, and
give the beggars a kopeck each, or a roll, God will have pity on
them, and will let them into Paradise."
The church porch is dry and bathed in sunshine. There is not a
soul in it. I open the door irresolutely and go into the church.
Here, in the twilight which seems to me thick and gloomy as at
no other time, I am overcome by the sense of sinfulness and
insignificance. What strikes the eye first of all is a huge
crucifix, and on one side of it the Mother of God, and on the
other, St. John the Divine. The candelabra and the candlestands
are draped in black mourning covers, the lamps glimmer dimly and
faintly, and the sun seems intentionally to pass by the church
windows. The Mother of God and the beloved disciple of Jesus
Christ, depicted in profile, gaze in silence at the insufferable
agony and do not observe my presence; I feel that to them I am
alien, superfluous, unnoticed, that I can be no help to them by
word or deed, that I am a loathsome, dishonest boy, only capable
of mischief, rudeness, and tale-bearing. I think of all the
people I know, and they all seem to me petty, stupid, and
wicked, and incapable of bringing one drop of relief to that
intolerable sorrow which I now behold.
The twilight of the church grows darker and more gloomy. And the
Mother of God and St. John look lonely and forlorn to me.
Prokofy Ignatitch, a veteran soldier, the church verger's
assistant, is standing behind the candle cupboard. Raising his
eyebrows and stroking his beard he explains in a half-whisper to
an old woman: "Matins will be in the evening to-day, directly
after vespers. And they will ring for the 'hours' to-morrow
between seven and eight. Do you understand? Between seven and
Between the two broad columns on the right, where the chapel of
Varvara the Martyr begins, those who are going to confess stand
beside the screen, awaiting their turn. And Mitka is there too
-- a ragged boy with his head hideously cropped, with ears that
jut out, and little spiteful eyes. He is the son of Nastasya the
charwoman, and is a bully and a ruffian who snatches apples from
the women's baskets, and has more than once carried off my
knuckle-bones. He looks at me angrily, and I fancy takes a
spiteful pleasure in the fact that he, not I, will first go
behind the screen. I feel boiling over with resentment, I try
not to look at him, and, at the bottom of my heart, I am vexed
that this wretched boy's sins will soon be forgiven.
In front of him stands a grandly dressed, beautiful lady,
wearing a hat with a white feather. She is noticeably agitated,
is waiting in strained suspense, and one of her cheeks is
flushed red with excitement.
I wait for five minutes, for ten. . . . A well-dressed young man
with a long thin neck, and rubber goloshes, comes out from
behind the screen. I begin dreaming how, when I am grown up, I
will buy goloshes exactly like them. I certainly will! The lady
shudders and goes behind the screen. It is her turn.
In the crack, between the two panels of the screen, I can see
the lady go up to the lectern and bow down to the ground, then
get up, and, without looking at the priest, bow her head in
anticipation. The priest stands with his back to the screen, and
so I can only see his grey curly head, the chain of the cross on
his chest, and his broad back. His face is not visible. Heaving
a sigh, and not looking at the lady, he begins speaking rapidly,
shaking his head, alternately raising and dropping his
whispering voice. The lady listens meekly as though conscious of
guilt, answers meekly, and looks at the floor.
"In what way can she be sinful?" I wonder, looking reverently at
her gentle, beautiful face. "God forgive her sins, God send her
happiness." But now the priest covers her head with the stole.
"And I, unworthy priest . . ." I hear his voice, ". . . by His
power given unto me, do forgive and absolve thee from all thy
sins. . . ."
The lady bows down to the ground, kisses the cross, and comes
back. Both her cheeks are flushed now, but her face is calm and
serene and cheerful.
"She is happy now," I think to myself, looking first at her and
then at the priest who had forgiven her sins. "But how happy the
man must be who has the right to forgive sins!"
Now it is Mitka's turn, but a feeling of hatred for that young
ruffian suddenly boils up in me. I want to go behind the screen
before him, I want to be the first. Noticing my movement he hits
me on the head with his candle, I respond by doing the same,
and, for half a minute, there is a sound of panting, and, as it
were, of someone breaking candles. . . . We are separated. My
foe goes timidly up to the lectern, and bows down to the floor
without bending his knees, but I do not see what happens after
that; the thought that my turn is coming after Mitka's makes
everything grow blurred and confused before my eyes; Mitka's
protruding ears grow large, and melt into his dark head, the
priest sways, the floor seems to be undulating. . . .
The priest's voice is audible: "And I, unworthy priest . . ."
Now I too move behind the screen. I do not feel the ground under
my feet, it is as though I were walking on air. . . . I go up to
the lectern which is taller than I am. For a minute I have a
glimpse of the indifferent, exhausted face of the priest. But
after that I see nothing but his sleeve with its blue lining,
the cross, and the edge of the lectern. I am conscious of the
close proximity of the priest, the smell of his cassock; I hear
his stern voice, and my cheek turned towards him begins to burn.
. . . I am so troubled that I miss a great deal that he says,
but I answer his questions sincerely in an unnatural voice, not
my own. I think of the forlorn figures of the Holy Mother and
St. John the Divine, the crucifix, my mother, and I want to cry
and beg forgiveness.
"What is your name?" the priest asks me, covering my head with
the soft stole.
How light-hearted I am now, with joy in my soul!
I have no sins now, I am holy, I have the right to enter
Paradise! I fancy that I already smell like the cassock. I go
from behind the screen to the deacon to enter my name, and sniff
at my sleeves. The dusk of the church no longer seems gloomy,
and I look indifferently, without malice, at Mitka.
"What is your name?" the deacon asks.
"And your name from your father?"
"I don't know."
"What is your papa's name?"
"And your surname?"
I make no answer.
"How old are you?"
When I get home I go to bed quickly, that I may not see them
eating supper; and, shutting my eyes, dream of how fine it would
be to endure martyrdom at the hands of some Herod or Dioskorus,
to live in the desert, and, like St. Serafim, feed the bears,
live in a cell, and eat nothing but holy bread, give my property
to the poor, go on a pilgrimage to Kiev. I hear them laying the
table in the dining-room -- they are going to have supper, they
will eat salad, cabbage pies, fried and baked fish. How hungry I
am! I would consent to endure any martyrdom, to live in the
desert without my mother, to feed bears out of my own hands, if
only I might first eat just one cabbage pie!
"Lord, purify me a sinner," I pray, covering my head over.
"Guardian angel, save me from the unclean spirit."
The next day, Thursday, I wake up with my heart as pure and
clean as a fine spring day. I go gaily and boldly into the
church, feeling that I am a communicant, that I have a splendid
and expensive shirt on, made out of a silk dress left by my
grandmother. In the church everything has an air of joy,
happiness, and spring. The faces of the Mother of God and St.
John the Divine are not so sorrowful as yesterday. The faces of
the communicants are radiant with hope, and it seems as though
all the past is forgotten, all is forgiven. Mitka, too, has
combed his hair, and is dressed in his best. I look gaily at his
protruding ears, and to show that I have nothing against him, I
"You look nice to-day, and if your hair did not stand up so, and
you weren't so poorly dressed, everybody would think that your
mother was not a washerwoman but a lady. Come to me at Easter,
we will play knuckle-bones."
Mitka looks at me mistrustfully, and shakes his fist at me on
And the lady I saw yesterday looks lovely. She is wearing a
light blue dress, and a big sparkling brooch in the shape of a
horse-shoe. I admire her, and think that, when I am grown-up, I
will certainly marry a woman like that, but remembering that
getting married is shameful, I leave off thinking about it, and
go into the choir where the deacon is already reading the
drink: until after communion the next morning
knuckle-bones: used in a game where players throw sticks at a
pattern made of knuckle-bones
nine: the Russian Orthodox Church allows children to take
communion from the age of seven
Herod: Herod ordered the Massacre of the Innocents (Matthew
Thursday: Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter, observed
in commemoration of the Last Supper