Text adapted from the illustrated on-line version at the University of Virginia Library Electronic Text Center. First prepared by Judy Boss. Edited by Thomas P. Lukas and David Seaman. The print version appeared as "Sleepy-Eye" in Cosmopolitan Magazine, volume 41, New York, May, 1906, with illustrations by James Preston. The title is translated as "Sleepy." here.
By Anton Chékhov
NIGHT. Nursemaid Varka, aged thirteen, rocks the cradle where baby lies, and murmurs, almost inaudibly:
"Bayu, bayushki, bayu!"
"Nurse will sing a song to you."
In front of the ikon burns a green lamp; across the room from wall to wall stretches a cord on which hang baby clothes and a great pair of black trousers. On the ceiling above the lamp shines a great green spot, and the baby clothes and trousers cast long shadows on the stove, on the cradle, on Varka. When the lamp flickers, the spot and shadows move as if from a draught. It is stifling. There is a smell of soup and boots.
The child cries. It has long been hoarse and weak from crying, but still it cries, and who can say when it will be comforted? And Varka wants to sleep. Her eyelids droop, her head hangs, her neck pains her. She can hardly move her eyelids or her lips, and it seems to her that her face is sapless and petrified, and that her head has shriveled up to the size of a pinhead.
"Bayu, bayushki, bayu!" she murmurs, "Nurse is making pap for you."
In the stove chirrups a cricket. In the next room behind that door snore Varka's master and the journeyman Athanasius. The cradle creaks plaintively, Varka murmurs -- and the two sounds mingle soothingly in a lullaby sweet to the ears of those who lie in bed. But now the music is only irritating and oppressive, for it inclines to sleep, and sleep is impossible. If Varka, which God forbid, were to go to sleep, her master and mistress would beat her.
The lamp flickers. The green spot and the shadows move about, they pass into the half-open, motionless eyes of Varka, and in her half-awakened brain blend in misty images. She sees dark clouds chasing one another across the sky and crying like the child. And then a wind blows, the clouds vanish, and Varka sees a wide road covered with liquid mud; along the road stretch wagons, men with satchels on their backs crawl along, and shadows move backward and forward; on either side through the chilly, thick mist are visible hills. And suddenly the men with the satchels and the shadows collapse in the liquid mud. "Why is this?" asks Varka. "To sleep, to sleep!" comes the answer. And they sleep soundly, sleep sweetly; and on the telegraph wires perch crows, and cry like the child, and try to awaken them.
"Bayu, bayushki, bayu! Nurse will sing a song to you," murmurs Varka; and now she sees herself in a dark and stifling cabin.
On the floor lies her dead father, Yélim Stépanov. She cannot see him, but she hears him rolling from side to side, and groaning. In his own words he "has had a rupture." The pain is so intense that he cannot utter a single word, and only inhales air and emits through his lips a drumming sound.
"Bu, bu, bu, bu, bu -- "
Mother Pelageya has run to the manor house to tell the squire that Yélim is dying. She has been gone a long time. Will she ever return? Varka lies on the stove, and listens to her father's "Bu, bu, bu, bu." And then some one drives up to the cabin door. It is the doctor, sent from the manor house where he is staying as a guest. The doctor comes into the hut; in the darkness he is invisible, but Varka can hear him coughing and hear the creaking of the door.
"Bring a light!" he says.
"Bu, bu, bu," answers Yélim.
Pelageya runs to the stove and searches for a jar of matches. A minute passes in silence. The doctor dives into his pocket and lights a match himself.
"Immediately, batiushka, immediately!" cries Pelageya, running out of the cabin. In a minute she returns with a candle-end.
Yélim's cheeks are flushed, his eyes sparkle, and his look is piercing, as if he could see through the doctor and the cabin wall.
"Well, what's the matter with you?" asks the doctor, bending over him. "Ah! You have been like this long?"
"What's the matter? The time has come your honor, to die. I shall not live any longer."
"Nonsense; we'll soon cure you."
"As you will, your honor. Thank you humbly -- only we understand. If we must die, we must die."
Half an hour the doctor spends with Yélim; then he rises and says:
"I can do nothing. You must go to the hospital; there they will operate on you. You must go at once, without fail! It is late and they will all be asleep at the hospital; but never mind, I will give you a note. Do you hear?"
"Batiushka, how can he go to the hospital?" asks Pelageya. "We have no horse."
"Never mind, I will speak to the squire; he will lend you one."
The doctor leaves, the light goes out, and again Varka hears, "Bu, bu, bu." In half an hour some one drives up to the cabin. This is the cart for Yélim to go to the hospital in. Yélim gets ready and goes.
And now comes a clear and fine morning. Pelageya is not at home; she has gone to the hospital to find out how Yélim is. There is a child crying, and Varka hears some one singing with her own voice:
"Bayu, bayushki, bayu! Nurse will sing a song to you."
Pelageya returns; she crosses herself and whispers:
"Last night he was better; toward morning he gave his soul to God. Heavenly kingdom, eternal rest! They say we brought him too late; we should have done it sooner."
Varka goes into the wood and cries, and suddenly some one slaps her with such force that her head bangs against a birch tree. She lifts her head, and sees before her her master, the bootmaker.
"What are you doing, scabby?" he asks. "The child is crying and you are asleep."
He gives her a slap on the ear; and she shakes her head, rocks the cradle and murmurs her lullaby. The green spot, the shadows from the trousers and the baby clothes tremble, wink at her, and soon again possess her brain. Again she sees a road covered with liquid mud. Men, with satchels on their backs, and shadows, lie down and sleep soundly. When she looks at them Varka passionately desires to sleep; she would lie down with joy, but mother Pelageya comes along and hurries her. They are going into town to seek situations.
"Give me a kopeck for the love of Christ," says her mother to everyone she meets. "Show the pity of God, merciful gentleman!"
"Give me here the child," cries a well-known voice. "Give me the child," repeats the same voice, but this time angrily and sharply. "You are asleep, beast!"
Varka jumps up, and looking around her, remembers where she is; there is neither road, nor Pelageya, nor people, but only, standing in the middle of the room, her mistress who has come to feed the child. While the stout, broad-shouldered woman feeds and soothes the baby, Varka stands still, looks at her, and waits till she has finished.
And outside the window the air grows blue, the shadows fade and the green spot on the ceiling pales. It will soon be morning.
"Take it," says her mistress. "It is crying. The evil eye is upon it!"
Varka takes the child, lays it in the cradle, and again begins rocking. The shadows and the green spot fade away, and there is nothing now to set her brain going. But, as before, she wants to sleep, wants passionately to sleep. Varka lays her head on the edge of the cradle and rocks it with her whole body so as to drive away sleep; but her eyelids droop again, and her head is heavy.
"Varka, light the stove!" rings the voice of her master from behind the door.
That is to say, it is at last time to get up and begin the day's work. Varka leaves the cradle, and runs to the shed for wood. She is delighted. When she runs or walks she does not feel the want of sleep as badly as when she is sitting down. She brings in wood, lights the stove, and feels how her petrified face is waking up, and how her thoughts are clearing.
"Varka, get ready the samovar!" cries her mistress.
Varka cuts splinters of wood, and has hardly lighted them and laid them in the samovar when another order comes:
"Varka, clean your master's galoches!"
Varka sits on the floor, cleans the galoches, and thinks how delightful it would be to thrust her head into the big, deep galoche, and slumber in it a while. And suddenly the galoche grows, swells, and fills the whole room. Varka drops her brush, but immediately shakes her head, distends her eyes, and tries to look at things as if they had not grown and did not move in her eyes.
"Varka, wash the steps outside; the customers will be scandalized!"
Varka cleans the steps, tidies the room, and then lights another stove and runs into the shop. There is much work to be done, and not a moment free.
But nothing is so tiresome as to stand at the kitchen table and peel potatoes. Varka's head falls on the table, the potatoes glimmer in her eyes, the knife drops from her hand, and around her bustles her stout, angry mistress with sleeves tucked up, and talks so loudly that her voice rings in Varka's ears. It is torture, too, to wait at table, to wash up, and to sew. There are moments when she wishes, notwithstanding everything around her, to throw herself on the floor and sleep.
The day passes. And watching how the windows darken, Varka presses her petrified temples, and smiles, herself not knowing why. The darkness caresses her drooping eyelids, and promises a sound sleep soon. But toward evening the bootmaker's rooms are full of visitors.
"Varka, prepare the samovar!" cries her mistress.
It is a small samovar, and before the guests are tired of drinking tea, it has to be filled and heated five times. After tea, Varka stands a whole hour on one spot, looks at the guests, and waits for orders.
"Varka, run and buy three bottles of beer!"
Varka jumps from her place, and tries to run as quickly as possible so as to drive away sleep.
"Varka, go for vodka! Varka, where is the corkscrew? Varka, clean the herrings!"
At last the guests are gone; the fires are extinguished; master and mistress go to bed.
"Varka, rock the cradle!" echoes the last order.
In the stove chirrups a cricket; the green spot on the ceiling, and the shadows from the trousers and baby clothes again twinkle before Varka's half-opened eyes; they wink at her, and obscure her brain.
"Bayu, bayushki, bayu!" she murmurs, "Nurse will sing a song to you."
But the child cries and wearies itself with crying. Varka sees again the muddy road, the men with satchels, Pelageya and father Yélim. She remembers, she recognizes them all, but in her semi-slumber she cannot understand the force which binds her, hand and foot, and crushes her, and ruins her life. She looks around her, and seeks that force that she may rid herself of it. But she cannot find it. And at last, tortured, she strains all her strength and sight; she looks upward at the winking, green spot, and as she hears the cry of the baby, she finds the enemy who is crushing her heart.
The enemy is the child.
Varka laughs. She is astonished. How was it that never before could she understand such a simple thing? The green spot, the shadows and the cricket, it seems, all smile and are surprised at it.
An idea takes possession of Varka. She rises from the stool and, smiling broadly with unwinking eyes, walks up and down the room. She is delighted and touched by the thought that she will soon be delivered from the child who has bound her, hand and foot -- be delivered, and then to sleep, sleep, sleep. And smiling and blinking, and threatening the green spot with her fingers, Varka steals to the cradle and bends over it with outspread fingers which afterward close tightly. Then, laughing with joy at the thought that now she can sleep, in a moment she sleeps as soundly as the dead child.
She was just beginning to walk along a little white road with tall black trees on either side, a little road that led to nowhere, and where nobody walked at all, when a hand gripped her shoulder, shook her, slapped her ear.
“Oh, oh, don't stop me,” cried the Child-Who-Was-Tired. “Let me go.”
“Get up, you good-for-nothing brat,” said a voice; “get up and light the oven or I'll shake every bone out of your body.”
With an immense effort she opened her eyes, and saw the Frau standing by, the baby bundled under one arm. The three other children who shared the same bed with the Child-Who-Was-Tired, accustomed to brawls, slept on peacefully. In a corner of the room the Man was fastening his braces.
“What do you mean by sleeping like this the whole night through—like a sack of potatoes? You've let the baby wet his bed twice.”
She did not answer, but tied her petticoat string, and buttoned on her plaid frock with cold, shaking fingers.
“There, that's enough. Take the baby into the kitchen with you, and heat that cold coffee on the spirit lamp for the master, and give him the loaf of black bread out of the table drawer. Don't guzzle it yourself of I'll know.”
The Frau staggered across the room, flung herself on to her bed, drawing the pink bolster round her shoulders.
It was almost dark in the kitchen. She laid the baby on the wooden settle, covering him with a shawl, then poured the coffee from the earthenware jug into the saucepan, and set it on the spirit lamp to boil.
“I'm sleepy,” nodded the Child-Who-Was-Tired, kneeling on the floor and splitting the damp pine logs into little chips. “That's why I'm not awake.”
The oven took a long time to light. Perhaps it was cold, like herself, and sleepy. … Perhaps it had been dreaming of a little white road with black trees on either side, a little road that led to nowhere.
Then the door was pulled violently open and the Man strode in.
“Here, what are you doing, sitting on the floor?” he shouted. “Give me my coffee. I've got to be off. Ugh! You haven't even washed over the table.”
She sprang to her feet, poured his coffee into an enamel cup, gave him bread and a knife, then, taking a wash rag from the sink, smeared over the black linoleumed table.
“Swine of a day—swine's life,” mumbled the Man, sitting by the table and staring out of the window at the bruised sky, which seemed to bulge heavily over the dull land. He stuffed his mouth with bread and then swilled it down with the coffee.
The Child drew a pail of water, turned up her sleeves, frowning the while at her arms, as if to scold them for being so thin, so much like little, stunted twigs, and began to mop over the floor.
“Stop sousing about the water while I'm here,” grumbled the Man. “Stop the baby snivelling; it's been going on like that all night.”
The Child gathered the baby into her lap and sat rocking him.
“Ts—ts—ts,” she said. “He's cutting his eye teeth, that's what makes him cry so. And dribble—I never seen a baby dribble like this one.” She wiped his mouth and nose with a corner of her skirt. “Some babies get their teeth without you knowing it,” she went on, “and some take on this way all the time. I once heard of a baby that died, and they found all its teeth in its stomach.”
The Man got up, unhooked his cloak from the back of the door, and flung it round him.
“There's another coming,” said he.
“What—a tooth!” exclaimed the Child, startled for the first time that morning out of her dreadful heaviness, and thrusting her finger into the baby's mouth.
“No,” he said grimly, “another baby. Now, get on with your work; it's time the others got up for school.”
She stood a moment quite silently, hearing his heavy steps on the stone passage, then the gravel walk, and finally the slam of the front gate.
“Another baby! Hasn't she finished having them yet?” thought the Child. “Two babies getting eye teeth—two babies to get up for in the night—two babies to carry about and wash their little piggy clothes!” She looked with horror at the one in her arms, who, seeming to understand the contemptuous loathing of her tired glance, doubled his fists, stiffened his body, and began violently screaming.
“Ts—ts—ts.” She laid him on the settle and went back to her floor-washing. He never ceased crying for a moment, but she got quite used to it and kept time with her broom. Oh, how tired she was! Oh, the heavy broom handle and the burning spot just at the back of her neck that ached so, and a funny little fluttering feeling just at the back of her waistband, as though something were going to break.
The clock struck six. She set a pan of milk in the oven, and went into the next room to wake and dress the three children. Anton and Hans lay together in attitudes of mutual amity which certainly never existed out of their sleeping hours. Lena was curled up, her knees under her chin, only a straight, standing-up pigtail of hair showing above the bolster.
“Get up,” cried the child, speaking in a voice of immense authority, pulling off the bedclothes and giving the boys sundry pokes and digs. “I've been calling you this last half-hour. It's late, and I'll tell on you if you don't get dressed this minute.”
Anton awoke sufficiently to turn over and kick Hans on a tender part, whereupon Hans pulled Lena's pigtail until she shrieked for her mother.
“Oh, do be quiet,” whispered the Child. “Oh, do get up and dress. You know what will happen. There—I'll help you.”
But the warning came too late. The Frau got out of bed, walked in a determined fashion into the kitchen, returning with a bundle of twigs in her hand fastened together with a strong cord. One by one she laid the children across her knee and severely beat them, expending a final burst of energy on the Child-Who-Was-Tired, then returned to bed, with a comfortable sense of her maternal duties in good working order for the day. Very subdued, the three allowed themselves to be dressed and washed by the Child, who even laced the boys' boots, having found through experience that if left to themselves they hopped about for at least five minutes to find a comfortable ledge for their foot, and then spat on their hands and broke the bootlaces.
While she gave them their breakfast they became uproarious, and the baby would not cease crying. When she filled the tin kettle with milk, tied on the rubber tit, and, first moistening it herself, tried with little coaxing words to make him drink, he threw the bottle on to the floor and trembled all over.
“Eye teeth!” shouted Hans, hitting Anton over the head with his empty cup; “he's getting the evil-eye teeth, I should say.”
“Smarty!” retorted Lena, poking out her tongue at him, and then, when he promptly did the same, crying at the top of her voice, “Mother, Hans is making faces at me!”
“That's right,” said Hans; “go on howling, and when you're in bed tonight I'll wait till you're asleep, and then I'll creep over and take a little tiny piece of your arm and twist and twist it until——” He leant over the table, making the most horrible faces at Lena, not noticing that Anton was standing behind his chair until the little boy bent over and spat on his brother's shaven head.
“Oh, weh! oh, weh!”
The Child-Who-Was-Tired pushed and pulled them apart, muffled them into their coats, and drove them out of the house.
“Hurry, hurry! the second bell's rung,” she urged, knowing perfectly well she was telling a story, and rather exulting in the fact. She washed up the breakfast things, then went down to the cellar to look out the potatoes and beetroot.
Such a funny, cold place the coal cellar! With potatoes banked on one corner, beetroot in an old candle box, two tubs of sauerkraut, and a twisted mass of dahlia roots—that looked as real as though they were fighting one another, thought the Child.
She gathered the potatoes into her skirt, choosing big ones with few eyes because they were easier to peel, and bending over the dull heap in the silent cellar, she began to nod.
“Here, you, what are you doing down there?” cried the Frau, from the top of the stairs. “The baby's fallen off the settle, and got a bump as big as an egg over his eye. Come up here, and I'll teach you!”
“It wasn't me—it wasn't me!” screamed the Child, beaten from one side of the hall to the other, so that the potatoes and beetroot rolled out of her skirt.
The Frau seemed to be as big as a giant, and there was a certain heaviness in all her movements that was terrifying to anyone so small.
“Sit in the corner, and peel and wash the vegetables, and keep the baby quiet while I do the washing.”
Whimpering, she obeyed, but as to keeping the baby quiet, that was impossible. His face was hot, little beads of sweat stood all over his head, and he stiffened his body and cried. She held him on her knees, with a pan of cold water beside her for the cleaned vegetables and the “ducks' bucket” for the peelings.
“Ts—ts—ts!” she crooned, scraping and boring; “there's going to be another soon, and you can't both keep on crying. Why don't you go to sleep, baby? I would, if I were you. I'll tell you a dream. Once upon a time there was a little white road——”
She shook back her head, a great lump ached in her throat and then the tears ran down her face on to the vegetables.
“That's no good,” said the Child, shaking them away. “Just stop crying until I've finished this, baby, and I'll walk you up and down.”
But by that time she had to peg out the washing for the Frau. A wind had sprung up. Standing on tiptoe in the yard, she almost felt she would be blown away. There was a bad smell coming from the ducks' coop, which was half full of manure water, but away in the meadow she saw the grass blowing like little green hairs. And she remembered having heard of a child who had once played for a whole day in just such a meadow with real sausages and beer for her dinner—and not a little bit of tiredness. Who had told her that story? She could not remember, and yet it was so plain.
The wet clothes flapped in her face as she pegged them; danced and jigged on the line, bulged out and twisted. She walked back to the house with lagging steps, looking longingly at the grass in the meadow.
“What must I do now, please?” she said.
“Make the beds and hang the baby's mattress out of the window, then get the waggon and take him for a little walk along the road. In front of the house, mind—Where I can see you. Don't stand there, gaping! Then come in when I call you and help me cut up the salad.”
When she had made the beds the Child stood and looked at them. Gently she stroked a pillow with her hand, and then, just for one moment, let her head rest there. Again the smarting lump in her throat, the stupid tears that fell and kept on falling as she dressed the baby and dragged the little waggon up and down the road.
A man passed, driving a bullock waggon. He wore a long, queer feather in his hat, and whistled as he passed. Two girls with bundles on their shoulders came walking out of the village—one wore a red handkerchief about her head and one a blue. They were laughing and holding each other by the hand. Then the sun pushed by a heavy fold of grey cloud and spread a warm yellow light over everything.
“Perhaps,” thought the Child-Who-Was-Tired, “if I walked far enough up this road I might come to a little white one, with tall black trees on either side—a little road——”
“Salad, salad!” cried the Frau's voice from the house.
Soon the children came home from school, dinner was eaten, the Man took the Frau's share of pudding as well as his own, and the three children seemed to smear themselves all over with whatever they ate. Then more dish-washing and more cleaning and baby-minding. So the afternoon dragged coldly through.
Old Frau Grathwohl came in with a fresh piece of pig's flesh for the Frau, and the Child listened to them gossiping together.
“Frau Manda went on her ‘journey to Rome’ last night, and brought back a daughter. How are you feeling?”
“I was sick twice this morning,” said the Frau. “My insides are all twisted up with having children too quickly.”
“I see you've got a new help,” commented old Mother Grathwohl.
“Oh, dear Lord”—the Frau lowered her voice—“don't you know her? She's the free-born one—daughter of the waitress at the railway station. They found her mother trying to squeeze her head in the wash-hand jug, and the child's half silly.”
“Ts—ts—ts!” whispered the “freeborn” one to the baby.
As the day drew in the Child-Who-Was-Tired did not know how to fight her sleepiness any longer. She was afraid to sit down or stand still. Asshe sat at supper the Man and the Frau seemed to swell to an immense size as she watched them, and then become smaller than dolls, with little voices that seemed to come from outside the window. Looking at the baby, it suddenly had two heads, and then no head. Even his crying made her feel worse. When she thought of the nearness of bedtime she shook all over with excited joy. But as eight o'clock approached there was the sound of wheels on the road, and presently in came a party of friends to spend the evening.
Then it was:
“Put on the coffee.”
“Bring me the sugar tin.”
“Carry the chairs out of the bedroom.”
“Set the table.”
And, finally, the Frau sent her intothe next room to keep the baby quiet.
There was a little piece of candle burning in the enamel bracket. As she walked up and down she saw her great big shadow on the wall like a grown-up person with a grown-up baby. Whatever would it look like when she carried two babies so!
“Ts—ts—ts! Once upon a time she was walking along a little white road, with oh! such great big black trees on either side.”
“Here, you!” called the Frau's voice, “bring me my new jacket from behind the door.” And as she took it into the warm room one of women said, “She looks like an owl. Such children are seldom right in their heads.”
“Why don't you keep that baby quiet?” said the Man, who had just drunk enough beer to make him feel very brave and master of his house.
“If you don't keep that baby quiet you'll know why later on.”
They burst out laughing as she stumbled back into the bedroom.
“I don't believe Holy Mary could keep him quiet,” she murmured. “Did Jesus cry like this when He was little? If I was not so tired perhaps I could do it; but the baby just knows that I want to go to sleep. And there is going to be another one.”
She flung the baby on the bed, and stood looking at him with terror.
From the next room there came the jingle of glasses and the warm sound of laughter.
And she suddenly had a beautiful, marvellous idea.
She laughed for the first time that day, and clapped her hands.
“Ts—ts—ts!” she said, “lie there, silly one; you will go to sleep. You'll not cry any more or wake up in the night. Funny, little, ugly baby.”
He opened his eyes, and shrieked loudly at the sight of the Child-Who-Was-Tired. From the next room she heard the Frau call out to her.
“One moment—he is almost asleep,” she cried.
And then gently, smiling, on tiptoe, she brought the pink bolster from the Frau's bed and covered the baby's face with it, pressed with all her might as he struggled, “like a duck with its head off, wriggling,” she thought.
She heaved a long sigh, then fell back on to the floor, and was walking along a little white road with tall black trees on either side, a little road that led to nowhere, and where nobody walked at all—nobody at all.