The Black Monk
The black monk comes whirling across the steppe like a tornado.
Then one frosty night, the household stays up firing smudge pots to save the fruit trees,
and this is in the summer.
The weather must be a metaphor, we think, well, obviously.
Kovrin thinks he is not crazy because he knows he is hallucinating,
and he is not crazy, he is dying.
Or is it the old man, the father, who is dying?
The father rails at the thought of his orchard in ruins if he goes, not wanting his daughter to marry, or thinking maybe she could marry Kovrin.
Is Tanya, frail and tearful, the lost one?
All through the story, we wonder who it will be,
we ask ourselves why the black monk is coming, we try to tell who is the most deluded,
but way before the ending, we see there is more than one truth to this matter.
Scene: a hotel on the Attersee where the mountain sheers straight up out of the water. A grey day.
In the hotel, run by Russians, dumplings are served with every course except dessert, which is watermelon.
The dumplings are delicious, light and fluffy, hiding under the mushroom stew or floating on soup.
Small boats are tied to a dock by the hotel terrace.
It is September but since it is a Sunday, people sit outside and order drinks:
bier, kirschwasser, limonade.
I search among them for Chekhov, but he is probably in his room, looking out the window, wondering how to write ‘watermelon’ in German.
I point and ask the nice waiter, the one with the long apron that wraps around his ankles as he bustles about with trays of the ruby fruit.
The waiter tells me ‘wassermelon.’ I write the word on a slip of paper and the waiter says he’ll take it upstairs to Chekhov.
I hear the waiter tripping on his apron as he climbs. A door opens and shuts. Or maybe the waiter has slipped the paper under a door. I can’t tell.
Chekhov stays up all night. I see the light from his window reflecting on the lake water, extra-dark because of the mountain’s shadow.
Every time the church bells clang, I wake up, until his light disappears at dawn.
In the story I know is about me, Gurov cuts himself a slice of watermelon and takes a long time eating it. As one critic said, “Seduction stuns.”
At breakfast, Chekhov sends me back a note saying, “I prefer pickled watermelon.”
I am so excited to think he can write in English, but then I think maybe the waiter helped him.
The waiter smiles and laughs and brings me tea in a glass.
“Do you have any pickled watermelon?” I ask him.
“Nein, nein,” he answers.
Chekhov won’t come down. He’s busy writing.
I’m leaving, stunned to have come all this way and found his hotel completely by accident.
“Goodbye,” says the waiter, “auf wiedersehen.”
He bows me out the door, still wearing that stupid long apron.
Because of the way he looks at me, I know I must be smiling.
The peasant women are talking and digging cabbages. They can’t imagine anyone could feed on such a tiny crumb, as the soldier does, dreaming all summer about an accidental kiss in the dark.
Lupenko, his name is Lupenko, feels a chilly touch on his cheek - and we’re plunged into the whole river, we’re dragged from shore, the story carries us off in an icy current.
What seemed meaningless at first, Lupenko touching the general’s damp bath towel on the railing of the bridge, becomes the pathetic shadow of the mesmerizing kiss.
We’re on the bridge, we’ve also missed the summons to the general’s house. None of us go there. We’re all the same as Lupenko, unfortunately.
Vorotoff, after months of French lessons, has only learned the word “memoir.”
He went wrong the first day when he told Mlle. Enquete how to teach,
in a completely stupid way,
which made it seem to her he did not really want to learn.
She came back for the money.
He hasn’t learned that the Frenchwoman doesn’t love him and when at last he tries to speak of his feelings, she rushes off --
there is lots of rushing off in Chekhov, well, at least, it creates movement.
We could despise this poor girl for being so passive, but it is her only defense.
If only this story would keep going so we could all get out of the freezing attic -
come on let’s go -
urging the creaking story machine like an ancient horse pulling a droshky in the snow.
No. That would be another story we’d like better because we could rush from place to place.