"Cardinal Points" litetrary journal: www.stosvet.net

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TEFFI
THREE STORIES


Translated by Robert Chandler

A RADIANT EASTER
    Like a torch, they passed the good news on to one another,
and, as if from a torch, each lit from it his own flame.
          from Legends about the Lives of the First Christians
Teffi's Authograph
   Dedication from Teffi to S.Andronikova. The inscription says:

   "Solomochka, dearest, in terror, let us run to one another - yes?"
   Teffi

   Salomeya Andronikova (1888-1982).  Half-Russian, half-Georgian, she was a famous
   beauty. Osip Mandelshtam was one of many poets who dedicated poems to her.
   She was close to both Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva, and from 1926 to 1935
   she supported Tsvetaeva financially.

   The book is called (: , 1922).

   From a copy found by Robert Chandler in a London bookshop.

Samosov stood there gloomily, watching the deacon with the incense and thinking, 'Go on, swing that incense, swing that incense! Think you can swing yourself into a bishopric? Some hope!'

Wanting to get closer to his boss, who was also praying in the church, he slowly but effectively elbowed away a small boy. He wanted to be noticed — that was why he had come. The boss was here with his spouse and his mother-in-law.

'He's brought his wife along,' muttered Samosov, crossing himself. 'A right bitch she is! Forty lovers — and off she goes to church with her pencilled eyebrows! You might think she'd feel a little shame in the presence of God. The man's a fool too — he imagined she had a dowry. And she, of course, said yes — it's no fun starving to death.'

'Christ has risen!' proclaimed the priest.

'Christ has risen indeed!' Samosov responded with feeling. And then, in an undertone: 'And his mother-in-law's come along too! Of course! If he left her at home, she'd be either smashing the china or forcing the safe. All she cares about is getting those daughters of hers married off. They're a gaggle of monsters — she's trying to get them off her hands as cheap as she can. And they can't even buy the old woman a decent hat! Their idea of fun is to stick an old galosh on her head. To make everyone laugh. A fine show of respect for an old woman... But like it or not, she did bring you lot into the world! You can't wriggle out of that one... Go on, swing that incense! They'll make you an archimandrite! A metropolitan!'

The service came to an end. With dignified deference, Samosov approached his boss.

'Yes, risen indeed!'

They exchanged kisses.

He kissed the hand of the boss's wife. He kissed the hand of the boss's mother-in-law.

'Heh, heh! It brings me such joy to see this crowd of simple people professing their faith in the timelessness of ordinances ... which... My wife? No, she's stayed behind, you see, managing the household... A regular Martha from the New Testament.'

He left the church, continuing for a while to sense both an inner glow from this meeting with a superior and the smell of floral eau-de-cologne on his moustache. But little by little he returned to his usual self.

'He might have invited me to come and break fast with them! The women were glad to see me! They stuck out their hands. And there can't be many people eager to kiss their manky paws.'

He went home.

His wife and daughter were sitting at the table. On it were ham and paskha.1  His wife had the hurt and confused look of someone who is constantly being scolded.

His daughter's large nose slanted slightly to the right, dragging along with it a left eye that looked at the world with a suspicious squint.

Samosov thought for a moment.

'Oh-ho, they think I've got presents for them!'

He banged his fist on the table.

'Who the devil gave you permission to break fast without me?'

'What do you mean?' asked his wife in amazement. 'We thought you were at your boss's. You said yourself --'

'A man can't even get any peace in his own home!' said Samosov, almost in tears. He very much wanted some ham, but it didn't seem right to start eating in the middle of a family row. 'Bring me tea in my room!'

He slammed the door after him.

'Anyone else would have come back from church and said: 'The Lord has blessed us',' said the daughter, looking with one eye at her mother and with the other eye at her plate. 'But we never do anything like normal people!'

'Who is it you're referring to?' asked the mother. 'Your father? Don't you dare speak like that! Your father's a real workhorse. He writes away day after day without a moment's rest. Then he comes home to break his fast and his daughter won't even exchange Easter greetings with him. Still thinking about Andrey Petrovich, are you? I'm sure you're ever so important to him! And how is it you're trying to entice him? By being rude to your parents? A girl with any self-respect does what she can to make life easier for her parents. She tries to earn some money herself. Yulia ... what's her name (you know the name, that bearded lady) ... Yulia Pastrana began to support her parents when she was two. She helped her other relatives as well.'

'So am I to blame that I wasn't given a brilliant education? It's easy enough to find secretarial work if you've been brilliantly educated.'

The mother stood up in a dignified manner.

'I'll have tea sent to me in my room! Thank you! You've ruined the entire holiday.'

She walked out.

Looking around brightly, her face flushed and joyful, the cook came into the dining room with a red-painted egg in her hands.

'Christhasrisenmiss! The Lord grant youonlythebest! And a good husband! A capital young husband!'

'The devil take you! Cheeky creature! Pecking me on the face like that!'

'The Lord have mercy!' said the cook, taking a step back. 'Why on earth ... How can you refuse a fellow-Christian an Easter kiss? So what if my visage is somewhat flushed? I'm speechless for words. All day long I've done nothing but bake things and boil things — the mere exhaustion of it all's enough to make a woman red in the visage. The stove's been alight all day — there's such an inflammation in there you can hardly breathe. And it's hot outside too, though it did mizzle a bit in the morning! Last year was a thousand times cooler! It snowed on our way to Mass.'

'Oh leave me in peace!' squealed the young lady. "Or I'll tell mother to give you the sack.'

She spun round on her heels and strutted off in the manner of a mistress who has quarrelled with a servant: sticking her chest out and wagging her shoulders busily, taking quick little steps yet moving slowly.

'Oo-ooh, I'm terrible scared!' the cook sang out after her. 'Oooh, you've put the fear of God in me... No — pay me my wages and you can do what you want! I haven't so much as sniffed five roubles from you since Christmas. I'll clear the table, but then I'm lying down and I'm not making no one no tea. You can find yourselves a convict if it's slave labour you want. He can make tea for you in the evenings.'

She took a dirty plate from the table and then, keeping to the system followed by every maid-of-all-work, placed a spoon on the plate, another plate on top of the spoon, a glass on this second plate, and a dish of ham on the glass. She was about to place a tray of cups on top of the ham when everything crashed to the floor.

'Oh, to hell with it all!'

All she had left in her hand was the original plate.

The cook thought for a while, then tossed the plate into the pile.

After scratching behind one ear, underneath her headscarf, she suddenly, as if remembering something, went back into the kitchen.

On a stool, lapping up milk and water from a little dish, was a scrawny cat. A little girl, an orphan — just to wash the dishes, was squatting down in front of this cat, looking at her and repeating, 'Drink it up, my little darling, drink it up! Yes, you've fasted enough. Let's hope some good food will plump you up quickly.'

The cook seized the girl by one ear.

'Who's been smashing china in the dining-room? Huh? Is that what they keep you here for? To smash up the china? Measly-faced little tyke! Huh? Who told you to go and clear up in the dining room? You little blockhead — tomorrow they'll give you what for!'

The little girl gave a frightened whimper and blew her nose in her apron. She rubbed her ear, blew her nose in the hem of her skirt, let out a sob, blew her nose in the corner of her headscarf, then suddenly rushed at the cat, pushed her onto the floor and gave her a good kick.

'To hell with you, you scrounging beast! You don't give us a moment's peace, you heathen creature. Milk, milk, milk — that's all you ever want! Well, I hope you snuff it before you die!'

First published 1910

Translated from Russian by Robert Chandler

Note: 'A Radiant Easter' parodies a recognized genre of sentimental and moralistic Easter stories
'A Radiant Easter' (Svetly Prazdnik) from Proza, Stikhi, Pyesy (Petersburg: Izd. rus. khristianskogo gumanitarnogo instituta, 1999)


SUBTLY WORDED

Letters started coming from the Soviet Union. More and more often.

Strange letters.

The kind of letter that encourages the rumour that everyone in the Soviet Union has gone crazy.

Journalists and public figures trying to draw conclusions from these letters about economic and political conditions in Russia, or even just everyday life, found themselves entangled in such dense thickets of nonsense that even people with a sacred faith in their country's limitless possibilities began to look askance.

Several such letters have come my way.

One of them, addressed to a lawyer by his doctor brother, began with the words: 'Dear Daughter!'

'Ivan Andreyevich, how come you've ended up as the daughter of your own brother?'

'I've no idea. I'm scared to think.'

The letter contained the following news: 'Everything's fine here. Anyuta has died from a strong appetite...'

'He must mean appendicitis,' I guessed.

'And the whole Vankov family have also died from appetite.'

'No, there's something wrong.'

'Pyotr Ivanovich has been leading a secluded life for four months now. Koromyslov began leading a secluded life eleven months ago. His fate is unknown.

Misha Petrov led a secluded life for only two days, then there was a careless incident with a firearm he happened to be standing in front of. Everyone is awfully delighted.'

'Dear God! What is all this? They're not people but animals. A man perishes in an unfortunate accident and they feel delighted!'

'We went round to your apartment. There's a lot of air there now...'

'What on earth! What's that meant to mean?'

'I'm scared to think. I can't imagine.'

The letter finished with the words, 'I write little because I want to continue to mix with society and not to lead a secluded life.'

All this depressed me for a long time.

'What a tragedy,' I said to people I knew. 'The brother of our Ivan Andreyevich has lost his mind. He calls Ivan Andreyevich his daughter, and he writes such nonsense I'm even embarrassed to repeat it.'

I felt very sorry for the poor fellow. He was a good man.

Then I heard there was some Frenchman offering to take a letter direct to Petrograd.

Ivan Andreyevich was delighted. I decided to add a few words too. Maybe the man wasn't yet quite off his rocker, maybe he'd understand a few words.

Ivan Andreyevich and I agreed to compose the letter together. So it would be clear and simple and not too much for a mind whose powers were fading.

We wrote:

'Dear Volodya!

We received your letter. What a pity everything is so awful for you. Is it really true that people have begun eating human flesh? How horrific! What's got into you? They say your death rate is terribly high. All this worries us like crazy. Life's going well for me. If only you were here too, everything would be quite perfect. I've married a Frenchwoman and I'm very happy.

        Your brother Ivan.'

At the end of the letter I added:

'My warmest greetings to all of you.

        Teffi.'

The letter was ready when a mutual friend dropped in, a worldly-wise and experienced barrister.

Learning what we had been doing, he turned very pensive and said in a serious tone, 'But did you write the letter correctly?'

'Er, what do you mean — correctly?'

'I'm asking if you can guarantee that your correspondent will not be arrested and shot because of this letter of yours.'

'Heavens! What do you mean? It just says the simplest things.'

'Allow me to have a look.'

'Please do. There's nothing secret.'

He took the letter. Read it. Sighed.

'Just as I thought. A firing squad within 24 hours. That's what happens.'

'For the love of God! What's wrong with the letter?'

'Everything. Every sentence. First, you should have written as a woman. Otherwise, your brother will be arrested as the brother of a man who has evaded conscription. Second, you shouldn't mention having received a letter, since correspondence is forbidden. And then you shouldn't show that you know how awful things are there.'

'But then what should I do? What should I write?'

'Allow me. I'll reword your letter in an appropriate style. Don't worry — they'll understand.'

'All right then. Reword it.'

The barrister did some writing, some crossing out, then read out the following:

'Dear Volodya!

I didn't receive your letter. How good that everything is going so well for you. Is it really true that people have stopped eating human flesh? How lovely! What's got into you? They say your birth rate is terribly high. All this calms us down like crazy. Life's going badly for me. If only you were here too, everything would be quite awful. I've married a Frenchman and I'm horrified.

        Your sister Ivan.'

The postscript:

'To hell with the lot of you. Teffi.'

'There,' said the barrister, gloomily admiring his composition and adding punctuation marks in the appropriate places. 'Now the letter can be sent with no risk at all. You're safe and sound, and your correspondent will remain alive. And the letter will reach him. Everything in order and properly worded.'

'I'm just worried about the postscript,' I remarked timidly. 'It does somehow seem rather rude.'

'That's as it should be. We don't want people being shot because of you and your kind words.'

'All this is quite brilliant,' Ivan Andreyevich said with a sigh. 'The letter and everything. But then what are people there going to think of us? After all, the letter is, excuse me, idiotic.'

'It's not idiotic, it's subtle. And even if they do think we've become idiots, who cares? At least they'll be alive. Not everyone today can boast of having living relatives.'

'But what if it frightens them?'

'Well, if you're scared of wolves, don't go into the forest. It's no good being frightened if you want to receive letters.'

The letter was sent.

Lord, save us. Lord, save and preserve us.

First published 1920

Translated from Russian by Robert Chandler    




THE CORSICAN

The interrogation had been dragging on, and the police officer felt exhausted; he declared a break and went off to his office for a rest.

With a sweet smile of satisfaction he was approaching the couch; suddenly he stopped, his face taking on a twisted look, as if he had seen something foul.

The other side of the wall, a loud bass voice was clearly singing the words: "Forward, forward, O working class !"

Not quite able to keep up with the bass, out of time and out of tune, a timid and hoarse little voice was singing: "Fowad, fowad!"

"What on earth's going on?" the officer exclaimed, pointing to the wall.

The clerk half got up from his chair.

"I have already had occasion to report to you on the subject of this agent."

"What are you on about? Keep it simple."

"Agent Fialkin has expressed a pressing and imperative wish to enter the ranks of our provocateurs. This is the second winter running that he has been on duty by the Mikhailov tramway. He's a quiet chap. Only he's ambitious beyond his station in life. Here I am, he says, wasting my youth and expending the best of my strength on the trams. He has noted the slow progress of his career on the trams and the impossibility of applying his exceptional abilities, that is, supposing he possesses such abilities."

"For juthtith'ake we thpill our blood," went the thin voice behind the wall.

"Out of tune!" said the bass.

"And is he talented?" asked the officer.

"He's ambitious — even excessively ambitious. He wants to become a provocateur, but he doesn't know a single revolutionary song. He's been moaning on and on about this. And so police constable no. 4711 has come to his rescue. No. 4711 knows everything - it's as if he had the music right there in front of him. Now of course most coppers know the words well enough. You can hardly block your ears when you're out on the street. But this one has a fine sense of music as well. So he's teaching Fialkin."

"Well, well! And so now they're belting out the "Varshavyanka", the officer murmured dreamily. "Ambition's no bad thing. It can help a man get on in the world. Take Napoleon. A simple Corsican, but he achieved... quite something..."

"The people's flag is burning red. It's sheltered oft our martyred dead," growled constable no. 4711.

"They seem to be on another tune already," said the officer, suddenly suspicious. "Is he teaching him all the revolutionary songs in one go?"

"Every last one of them. Fialkin's in a hurry. He thinks there's an important conspiracy being hatched."

"Well, there's certainly no lack of ambition round here!"

"The se-ee-ed of the future," bleated Fialkin.

"The energy of the devil," sighed the officer. "They say that when Napoleon was just a simple Corsican..."

From the staircase below came muffled thumps and a kind of roar.

"And what's that?" asked the officer, raising his eyebrows.

"That's our lot, on the ground floor. They eat there. They're getting upset."

"What about?"

"Seems they can hear the singing. They don't like it."

"Damn it! This really is a bit awkward. People out on the street might hear too. They'll think there's a demonstration going on in this building."

"Damn you!" said the bass the other side of the wall. "Howling like a dog! Is that the way a revolutionary sings? A revolutionary sings with an open heart. He makes a clear sound. One can hear every word. But you just whimper into your cheeks, and your eyes keep darting about. Keep your eyes still! I'm saying this for the last time. Or I'll up and leave. If you really want a maximalist as a teacher, then you'll have to go and hire one!"

"Now he's losing his temper," grinned the clerk. "A real Vera Figner."2

"Ambition! Ambition!" the officer repeated. "And he wants to be a provocateur... No, brother, there's no rose without thorns. Court-martials don't have time for long deliberations. Get yourself arrested, brother, and no one will bother to check whether you're a revolutionary or whether you're the purest of provocateurs. You'll swing for it anyway."

"Gluttons grow fat on workers' sweat," roared the bass, letting himself go.

"Ow! It's giving me toothache! Can't anyone talk him out of all this?"

"But how can they? Nowadays people are careerists," sighed the clerk.

"There must be some way to convince him. Tell him the fatherland needs competent sleuths every bit as much as it needs provocateurs. My tooth's really hurting..."

"You gave your life in sacrifice," the agent bleated pathetically.

"To hell with it all!" yelled the officer, and ran out of the room. "Get out of here!" he shouted down the corridor, his staccato voice hoarse with rage. "Scoundrels! Wanting to be provocateurs when they can't even sing the Marseillaise! They'll put our whole institution to shame! Corsicans! I'll show you what happens to Corsicans!"

A door slammed. Everything went quiet. The other side of the wall, someone let out a sob.

1910

Translated from Russian by Robert Chandler    


____

1 A sweet cream-cheese dish eaten at Easter.
2  Vera Figner (1852-1942) took part in an attempt to assassinate Alexander II.