Chekhov's Ninth

by Devin Carraway (Copyright (c) 1995)

  I know that you have come to see me, and I quail at your approach.  There is much you 
do not know, and the fear that I must tell you everything emanates from my darkest and 
deepest reaches, that drips forth though I may try to hold it back, drips forth and down 
through my clutching fingers, seeping as black as dead bile, down... down.  I feel how 
hard it must have been for you to come here, knowing that I hold the answers to your 
questions, answers I fear to give and you to accept.  Though you have not asked I have 
long held in my mind that which I must tell you, though it sits in my heart, barbed and 
bloody.  Some my own blood, some not.

  We are as close now as we have ever been, only now in that small space between us are 
the bars, the bars of the Asylum.  They did not bring you here willingly, I know, and they 
do not now willingly close the doors behind them and leave us together but for these bars.  
They did not willingly remove from me the straps, nor abstain for a day the injections so 
that I might speak.  Uncomfortable were they allowing us to be separated only now by 
these bars.

  My Lady, I know what has happened to bring you here.

	--

  Even today the students of the College at Pskov are an intriguing lot, bawdy and 
eccentric, independently-minded and yet at the mercy of whim.  Were it not for the similar 
eccentricities of the benefactors of the College it would have been shut up long ago, and its 
students left to the ranks of the differently minded universities in other cities.  Pskov has 
long been a College of literature and philosophical study.  Surprising that has become so 
enlightened, especially given that apart from this one College the old ways are still very 
much the ruling paradigms of academia in this part of the world.  When drunk we called it 
an island of mirth in a sea of despondency, though in clearer states of mind we certainly 
wept our share, steeped in a newly grievous retelling of an ancient tale.

  It was among these students that I found myself in those years.  Having at last completed 
the two grueling introductory semesters, I had come, through academic success as well as 
personal inclination, to specialize in the works of Chekhov.  My beloved Anton Pavlovich 
had fallen out of favor in Pskov, but through some well-crafted proposals and not a little 
harassing of my poor professors, I was granted leave to study him to my heart's content, 
though little contentment did it eventually bring me.

  I lived alone in a small and ancient dormitory, ironically built by someone intuitive or 
compassionate enough to disbelieve the rubbishy assertion that students' living quarters 
should be large enough to breathe comfortably, but no more.  My rooms, while not 
luxurious in size, were nonetheless comfortable and well-appointed with ancient 
furnishings of rich wooden construction.  In some comfortable portion of my mind, I 
shared these rooms with Anton Chekhov, as night after night I went through his writings to 
find the man who had created the stories that seemed to come to life for so few in those 
days.  I could sometimes see him sitting near me, puffing on a pipe as he watched me 
work.

	--

  It was just before our Autumn sessions were to commence when I came to Babaevo to 
visit with you and your husband.  We dined that night at the West Armitage, perhaps the 
finest dining to be had in that part of the country.  I gave you my heartiest congratulations 
on your suspected pregnancy, and my admirations of the new lifestyle its fruition would 
bring to you and your husband.  So long had you waited, and there could be no two more 
deserving.  I, the son you never wanted, would have a sibling to bring you joy.  I 
remarked how fortunate the child would be to be born into such a life and to such parents, 
and we ate and drank and laughed away the evening, remembering old stories and scenes 
from my childhood, when you had yourselves been students, teaching me fragments of 
what you had learned.

  It was only after the last drops of brandy had evaporated from our cups that your husband 
rose from the table, but rather than to reach for his coat being proffered by the footman he 
clutched instead at his temples, swayed, and at last collapsed back into his chair.  I and the 
maitre'd and the attendants bore him to the gentlemen's room, and sought to stop his 
sudden fever, with cold water and ice compresses, but to no avail.  His hemorrhaging 
stopped along with his heart.  It was with the greatest regret that I was forced to return to 
Pskov and the College, in lieu of attending his funeral, and seeking to comfort you.  While 
you grieved, you held your hand to your belly.

  Trains are marvelous devices for imposing both linearity and introspection; with each jolt 
of the tracks, a new frame from my recollections would appear behind my eyes.  The 
visions commenced some time around the train's passage through Borovichi.  Your 
husband, as I had known him, in an endless trickle of images.  Such a giant he had once 
seemed to me, when I was small, vigorous and full of health.  His voice was the one that I 
came to associate with benevolent authority and the simple wisdoms he visited on me.  
Only much later, in a rare moment in my adolescent insecurity when I sought examples in 
those I know, did I learn to see the sadness that filled him, sometimes, when he would 
look at me.  Then, I felt failure, for failing to be the son he had always wanted.  Later, I 
found that I had failed a different way; I had failed to see his sorrow at failing to give that 
son to you.  Now, I feel both failures, and more.  I passed through Valdai Hills seeing his 
face, as tears of failure could be glimpsed in his smiling eyes from time to time, as he 
would pick me up and swing me around laughing, or give to me a book, concealing his 
smile behind an ill-fitting cloak of solemnity.

  In the long, sloping plain to the Volkhov River, I saw less and less of him, till he came no 
more.  While the black forests rose out of the night, the moon out of sight above, instead 
you came, briefly, between the shadows.  Though you had been present in my visions of 
your husband, now you walked alone, in rough weavings, carrying your small sad burden.  
You had so wanted that burden; we had thought your husband incapable.  I strained to see 
you from the train window, to reassure you that you were not alone, but felt these words 
block my throat in immediate contradiction of what I had done.  In consideration of what I 
have done now, even that pales in comparison.  After the brief lights of Staraya Russa, 
though I sat looking, I saw no more.

  Upon my return I sought to resume my work, but Chekhov no longer sat watching me, 
no longer looked on me approvingly as I analyzed scene after scene, story after story.  
"What would you have done," I tried to ask him, in moments of desperation, feeling that 
somehow I had failed him by leaving you to return to my studies.  I tried to reason with 
him, saying that I could have no useful influence on your grief, and the most respectful 
option available to me was to leave you alone.  There was nothing I could do, it was 
beyond me - I would only have made things worse had I stayed.  Chekhov said nothing to 
me, leaving me to argue with the emptiness of my dormitory.

  Faster do the memories come, now.  Your surprise appearance at the door to my 
dwellings in Pskov, my shock at your intimations.  I felt a horrible sense of failure that you 
had indeed needed me by your side, after I had gone.  I had been wrong to leave, I said 
over and over, even as you paid no heed to my misguidedness, your own mission greater 
in your mind.  I conceded to your requests, gave my greatest apologies for my idiocy, tried 
to hold you consolingly before your return to Babaevo.  Was I so much a failure even then 
as not to consider the matter with the wisdom I had sought with such meager success to 
attain?  You must know by now that my mind was so menial in its failure as to see only my 
chance to undo the wrongs I had done you.  Never through your tears could I see the 
events that caused them.  Think of this when you judge me, I beg of you 	-- such fallacy 
and arrogance as I possessed adds to my crimes.

  Chekhov returned to me; he said nothing, neither approving nor disapproving, now only a 
passive observer.  He watched me as I sat reading, one hand over my womb.

	--

  Such a simple matter, it was then.  Transfer of the foetus was accomplished quickly and 
neatly.  It seemed like mere minutes, at the end of which I was pregnant and you were not.  
An improbable procedure, perhaps, and not one for which there was much demand, but 
nonetheless performed with ease and efficiency.  For days afterward I halfway expected to 
be required to return to the clinic for additional procedures, to be told some part of the 
process had been left out.  Often I imagined, and envied, your awareness of the life that 
had been  inside you.

  My life at Pskov began to change, becoming almost a figment of distraction, regardless of 
how much concentration I tried to give it.  I had become an entity in two disparate lives - 
the old life of the eccentric student among my fellow students, exploring and laughing and 
learning - and the new life, the life that was forming as within me formed a new someone 
with a life of their own.  The other students, accepting and enlightened as they were in their 
studies, began to back away from me, as if driven by fear of what I had become.  Chekhov 
gave me no relief - his image still observed me, without mercy, giving me no indication of 
his thoughts.

	--

  Seven months later, I was in the wrong.  With every action, I became more oriented 
towards this small life I bore.  Every moment, pregnant and alone.  I sat in empty 
auditoriums and turned pages, learned what I could of the processes I would go through, 
the means by which children are formed.  The pages provided pictures of headless torsos, 
painstakingly diagrammed to display their growing inner cargoes.  The only selves, it 
seemed 	-- they were tiny inhuman lives inside unliving corpses.  All these women 	-- the 
books came from the older stacks, the only ones I could obtain, and depicted only normal 
pregnancies.  All of those women, I thought, are alive behind these pictures.  Would that 
they could speak, that they had written the books, perhaps then they could tell of how an 
awareness could grow between a man and his unborn child.  Such as I was, an anomaly of 
my species, feeling panic close around me as the weeks went past, the time approaching 
when the carriage would be complete.  Can one take a child from within oneself properly 
without the intimate familiarity that seemed a necessary part of the process?  Would she, or 
you, forgive me?

  She.  Yes, I knew that then, somehow.  Inside me was something impenetrable, but I 
knew it to be female 	-- a girl, perhaps somehow my girl.  That much I knew.  She never 
moved within, never acknowledged me, never spoke to me, as in moments of desperation I 
pleaded for her to do.  The books spoke of the vigor with which one's insides might be 
pummeled, and suggested postures and relaxations to help; these I dutifully memorized, 
transcribed to note paper which I would then keep in my rooms, uselessly, for she never 
once moved, only continued her inexorable swelling, pulling my spine around her, without 
notice or apology.

  My landlady gave me notice, as subtly as she could manage, that when the time came I 
would not be giving birth in my rooms.  Had I moved so far from society as to be denied 
birth in my own home?  Distraught, I began seeking alternatives, but who would give the 
use of a room to one such as me, for a purpose such as mine?  Instead I scouted the woods 
and parks, searching for suitable bowers for the purpose.  I wandered the Campus, taking 
note of seldom-locked sheds, disused stairways, secluded closets.  In as much as I was 
able, I made my preparations.  Few noticed me 	-- my old professors gave me leave, and 
most believed me to be studying independently; no chums came to me, nor petitioners or 
collectors.

                                       	--

  Chekhov himself, I suspect, must have arranged for the resplendency of the orchard niche 
in which I found myself that June.  The blossoms stretched to the visible horizon like the 
clouds that lay above them, in delicate shades of white and pink.

  These were among my first thoughts on reaching the place; I had determined to go there 
when the first pains began the night before.  It was adequately secluded from passers-by.  I 
realized also, as the real pain licked upwards through me, that the seclusion left me at the 
mercy of the event.  There would be no hospitals, no doctors; even the clinic that had made 
this possible was closed to its own patients.  She would survive, I knew, even if my last 
act was to lance myself open to remove her.  Such and more was demanded by my duty to 
you, and such I would do.
 
My hands fumbled with animal terror for solace in my bag of provisions.  Before me 
spilled out the assortment of things suggested by the writers of books, citing the 
inclinations of doctors, nurses, the practitioners of the trade of birth.  Nowhere in my bag 
could I find feeling, the emotions that must be there somewhere.  What was I to feel for 
this culmination of duty and honor, but terror and inadequacy?  My hands, snared in the 
string that had been boiled in my tea water, the knife squirmed and twisted within me, and I 
fell to my side in the long stalks of dead grass.

It matters little, I know, how long I spent there, spending the gasps between the pains 
willing myself to cry, to find relief, to suffer unto life, not death.  My face remained dry as 
the grass, but at last from within there game the great rush, a slurry of expectation, as I 
bathed the ground with my child's water.

How could I have known what to feel, my lady?  In your stead the last few minutes must 
have passed, while my mind remained, as if impaled, on that moment?  Squatting, half 
leaning against a tree amidst a trembling rain of petals, she spilled from me, fell amongst 
the mire of all I had carried around her.  At last, blind with pain, I lifted her from the grass, 
and held her upwards, offering her to the sky - in surrender.

	--

Though I held her outwards in offering, no one came to take her from me.  Nowhere 
amidst that froth of flowers did you emerge to save me from her.  In defeat and surrender, I 
brought her down to me, my duty unalleviated.

How, in such a place as Pskov, does one reenter life with such a burden?  In the semi-
conscious return to my dormitories, I wondered to whom I was running.  Chekhov, my 
beloved, you, home.  Had you divined the events of that afternoon in the field, and come to 
claim what I held for you?  My door opened upon the usual worn furnishings, the colors of 
the setting sun falling against them; nothing else.  Looking down at the sleeping girl in my 
arms, I felt for the right words to speak to her, the first words she would hear.  I lay her 
down in the book crate padded with blankets, covered her with the softest of these, looked 
down at her.

After she had lain for a moment, unsleeping, I heard the door open behind me.  Stirred by 
the brush of air over her, the child opened her eyes as Chekhov came over to stand beside 
me, looking at the baby before us.  His brow furrowed slightly, as if in deep 
contemplation, or judgment.  After a time he stretched out his had, and softly brushed her 
eyes closed.  Another moment passed, as her breathing shifted into that of sleep, peace.

"Julia," he said softly.  Then, after a pause, he turned and walked slowly away.  I again 
felt for words.

"<unprintable without Cyrillic character set>," I said.  I'm sorry.

	--

The next portion of my story, my lady's answer, I do not understand.  How can one 
understand how, without reason, a mind can be squeezed with no cause but duty?  I 
attended to that duty, as a matter of honor and dignity, and care.  I fed Julia with milk 
obtained from the only goat farmer nearby.  Wen I sat at my books, she lay nearby, either 
in her cradle of anthologies or in the folds of my coat.  When I slept, she slept by me, her 
skin warm against my chest.  I gave to her all the tenderness I could imagine; I sought to 
fulfill my duty.  In my letter to your Babaevo address, I gave my best description of the 
past weeks, assured you that Julia would receive the best care I knew how to give.  
Nowhere did I mention her name.  Come take what is yours, I tried to say.  By the end, I 
realized, I was pleading.  This child, born of three, made for the love of one other.



Julian learned to smile at the same time as the blessed peace with which she slept left her.  
Late at night, the moon gone from my window, I would hold her, gently, while she wept.  
Can infants weep, I wondered?  She cried not for need, I thought, but from sorrow.  
Sorrow, I feared, the suspicion a clutch in my center, for the mother she lacked.  What a 
crime I was committing 	-- the knowledge fell on my like a wave.  Motherless, drowned in 
care but without love such as she deserved.  How worthless my care, my struggling to 
assuage my own pathetic grief at failure.  Forgiveness I deserved not - for my selfish lack 
of vision, the most important thing I had known was condemned.  Days, weeks passed, 
and you did not appear; no response to my letters came.  Nights without rest, while she 
wept from sadness.  Days, when I remained in bed, wrapped around her.  With my body, I 
protected the world from the cries of what I had done.  Infants to not produce tears: 
perhaps, then, this was no longer an infant.  The milkiness washed from her eyes, wetting 
my bedclothes, wrinkling the pages of my books, the words of Anton Pavlovich running in 
gray streaks.  I imagined her pupils sharpening, focusing upon me, though her eyes 
remained closed while wetness welled from beneath folded lids.

In the darkest part of a moonless night, I added my own voice to hers. Alone, together, for 
a few seconds eternal, we screamed.

	--

The end of this confession, my lady, you know already.  In a humble district in Pskov 
there lived and worked a woodsmith, a master of his craft.  A simple request I brought to 
him, that bright morning.  The finest teak cabinet he could fashion - simple and unadorned, 
but heavy and thick, rich in texture.  Fit for a queen, I insisted.  One side, I added 
vehemently, was to be left unattached.

Slowly, in my rooms, I prepared my betrayal.  I felt pain in my womb like that of her birth 
as I laid her within, padded by soft blankets.  Inside, I felt scorched and blinded as I 
looked at her.  I drove the screws through the wood and into my heart.

For the remaining hours, I was abandoned to betrayal and condemnation.  No mercy do I 
deserve, My Lady.  All the effluvium boiled within me as I remained, my cheek against the 
wood, feeling her cry, as she died.

	--

Behind these closed eyes, I have no need of knowing.  The bars are there, and, it seems, 
you are on the other side of them.  Or perhaps not.  It is quiet here, behind soft lids, which 
I am told are red with grief.  Grief does not hold me now.  The bars are thick, soft and 
warm.  They hold me safe and secure.  The other side need not concern me.  Have I 
imagined you standing before me?  I have done so many times before.  I have taken from 
you, I remember well.  But I have nothing now, but my humble palette, with straps to 
make the difficult decisions for me.  Needles give me no trouble, now, and they bring 
relaxation and calming of mind.  These are my homes now, my life.  You are another life.  
Go from me, My Lady.