Fields, forests and poor villages were slowly gliding by the train windows. The passengers were lulled by the rumble of wheels. The sun was warming the face of a young woman pleasantly. She made herself comfortable on the upper berth and took comfort knowing that Pascha was coming and it would be followed by the summer with all its wonders…
The passengers on the lower berths hadn’t had time to get acquainted with each other yet, but they were already discussing the destiny of Russia. Pale and overwrought due to the spring lack of vitamins, they looked on the dark side of things. They were talking about a loss of moral values that had once been passed on from grandparents to their grandchildren.
“Oh, come off it! Turn on the TV, and you will see everything!” a history teacher who was sitting on the left by the window waved her hand and turned away from her conversation partners angrily.
An oppressive atmosphere began to reign in the compartment, and even their teeth began to ache. Everybody stared out of the window. And, as if to make things worse, heaps of last year’s trash were exposed from under the snow, while the train went through squalid, neglected villages… Thus a few minutes passed in silence.
Suddenly a strong, pure girlish voice rang out from an upper berth:
“With all that, I disagree with you! I don’t agree, and that’s that!”
The very young woman who had attracted little attention since the beginning of the journey sat down on her berth, and now everybody was looking at her attentively and with amazement. She jumped down from her berth carefully, took her lacy knitted headscarf from under her pillow, wrapped it around her shoulders cozily, and settled down next to the history teacher.
And the tiny space of the compartment was imperceptibly transformed at once. As if the cheerless prospect of a journey with disagreeable people unexpectedly turned into the promise of an interesting and warm conversation with an old friend. The girl who was a little embarrassed looked around at her fellow travelers and introduced herself cheerfully:
“I'm Asya! Let's get to know each other!”
Igor Viktorovich looked at his fellow traveler sympathetically--he took a liking to her at once. The teacher would cast a glance at her every now and then jealously and in an unfriendly manner. The young woman was fresh and lovely, but that was not the point. The point was that there was something in her that made her nobler than all the most beautiful and wise people in the world if they didn’t have it. The teacher couldn’t figure out what it was, and so she was annoyed.
The fourth traveler in the compartment was a plump, modest woman with an apologetic smile on her face. Her participation in the conversation amounted to nothing more than smiling this smile and nodding her head in agreement. It looked as if she were afraid of being asked for her opinion and agreed with everybody in advance. Gazing at Asya with adoration, she relaxed and was no longer ashamed of her own black flannel dressing gown with its blue Eastern “cucumber” design and of not having had her hair done.
“I have been listening to your conversation,” Asya carried on. “What you have said is right and indeed there are reasons for despondency. But all of you have children (or already grandchildren) and you want to raise all of them,” the young lady looked at Igor. “And you will never feel so discouraged that you will give up. And if you have hard moments and even despair, you endure all of this and then start over. Why? Because you love them despite everything and hope… It is the same with our country, with Russia…”
The girl was silent for a while, as if ignoring that nobody had uttered a single word, and then went on:
“I don’t know about you, but I personally can boldly say that the Lord won’t abandon us and our children. And these villages…” Asya nodded to the window. “As for the statements that there is nobody to pass the traditions on to the future generations, that is untrue. Or perhaps that’s true, but not only people can do that.”
It was clear that the young woman was worried: she wanted to say something that was important to her and feared being misunderstood. She was speaking fast and in a confused way because the situation was obviously unfamiliar to her. Asya’s companions were staring at her intently, as if fearing to miss a single word.
“Maybe you will find my opinion silly or trivial, but I will share it with you. Let us take our modern bearded Orthodox men, whom you can see in any church. Every time I see them I cannot stop admiring the way they greet one another with a triple kiss. How beautiful it is! And it is so natural—they have somehow remembered to do this without actually having learned it! And how those who never heard about God from their parents and grandparents make the sign of the cross and pray in churches! How quickly they understand and memorize (to be more precise—remember) everything there!
“As a matter of fact, I grew up in an orphanage as an abandoned child. But it doesn’t matter. What really matters is that nobody talked with us about any Russian traditions, let alone Orthodox traditions. That place was oppressive to me, I felt so miserable, and everybody was so rude… Shame…
“But one day I came across a book at our library (for some reason, no one would borrow it). You surely know this book. It is the novel The Idiot by Feodor Dostoevsky. Though I was still a girl, I made out its meaning immediately: Prince Myshkin represents the ideal human being. We all must become like him—then the entire world will be happy. Words cannot express how much I wanted to tell everybody about him and explain this! But no one would listen to me. They only laughed and said that we have no end of our own idiots. But I wasn’t hurt. The most important thing is that this prince remained with me forever instead of my parents. When I came to believe in God, I understood about whom Dostoevsky had written this novel and for what purpose the Lord had sent me this book at the right time. After the orphanage girls had given me a ‘beating in the dark’ for the umpteenth time, I was about to throw myself into the river…”
“So you changed your mind? Changed your mind after reading The Idiot?” the history teacher wondered, trying to make fun of Asya.
“Yes, I did,” Asya replied simply without noticing the teacher’s irony or even looking at her. “Can you explain to me how I managed to grasp this at the early age of thirteen? After all, it was the first thick book I had ever read. Therefore, God can arrange things. He can arrange everything.
“And then another miracle occurred to me. It was two years later, when I was in a boarding school where there were many children from ‘problem’ families. Though they were not orphans, and their parents or other relatives would take them home for holidays. So I would stay alone and naturally had attacks of the blues. I remember sitting on my bed in the bedroom and crying. I was turning over the pages of a book. I don’t remember how I had found it. On its cover was written: ‘Kustodiev. Life and Works’. The book, though small, was printed on glossy paper, and the reproductions were bright and fine. I was leafing it through automatically, seeing some merchant women, samovars [a samovar is a large decorated container for heating water, traditionally used in Russia for making tea.—Trans.], and so on…
“All of these things had nothing to do with my life. I had never been to any museums before then. We were only taken to the circus and the cinema. Thus I was looking through the book, while thinking of something else. And suddenly I saw ‘Maslenitsa’! A pearly winter town down in a valley, with a sledge and bright, well-dressed people in the foreground, embroidered on silk as on a mirror-like surface. I was overcome with joy! Shivers still run down my spine. I even felt the ‘needles’ of little pieces of ice that fly from under the horses' hooves onto my face. Like a whirlwind, I got carried away to that town, heard the noise of the celebrations, the ringing of church bells and little sleigh bells. And I heard that particular laughter (then still unfamiliar to me)—airy, open, merry and happy!
“And suddenly all of this appeared so familiar to me. I realized that all of this was mine—I even felt the weight of my light brown braid around my head, saw a reflection of my rosy face in the samovar, and felt the coldness of the chilly water in the ice hole, as if I were rinsing out my linen… And those swinging movements of strong hands—all of it is familiar to me… The healthy smell of sheets, so stiff, and how they are brought back home from the frost. And I felt the smell of the veranda floor after it has been washed with cold water in hot weather…
“And there were many other sensations that I couldn’t have experienced in real life. And what about the scent of Pascha? It was then that I felt and recognized it—this smell is sweet and meek, and there is peace and quiet in it. I even sensed the beard of a salesman exchanging a triple kiss with me [as the Paschal salutation.—Trans.], smelling of rustic tobacco!” Asya broke into laughter with embarrassment.
“I still keep this joy in my soul. Can you answer me where did it fall on me (like a bolt from the blue) from?!
“I believe God gave it to me then as a guarantee so that I would not lose heart. And He can give it to anyone. All we need to do is ask: ‘I am yours, O Lord! Please, never abandon me. I want to rejoice in You and don’t need anything else!’”
The teacher was listening to Asya, first smiling condescendingly, and then shrinking back in fear. Igor Viktorovich was looking at Asya fixedly and intently. And Tatiana, a simple chubby woman, was looking at her with understanding. When Asya stopped talking, Tatiana started speaking timidly and worriedly:
“All that you have just said is known to me in some sense. But I would have never been able to explain this in words, like you. Thank you for this. When I was pregnant with my first baby and felt its movement for the first time, this sensation seemed familiar to me. And I always recognized the sensation when milk was coming, these occasional pricks. Yes, exactly,” Tatiana went back in her mind to her firstborn, feeling awkward about her own confession. She doubted if it was appropriate for her to talk about these things. But there was a timid, happy smile shining on her face that had already turned rosy.
“How many children do you have?” Igor Viktorovich wondered.
“Five,” Tatiana replied simply.
There was an exhalation, either of amazement or admiration, in the compartment.
“How beautiful and happy you are…”
Now Tatiana, who earlier had seemed oppressed and worn out, indeed looked happy, beautiful, strong, calm, and well-built.
“Where are you going alone?” the teacher tried her best to change to an ironic, condescending tone again.
“To a monastery, to my husband,” and Tatiana told her the name of the monastery. “He is helping them in construction work. He has a clever pair of hands, so they suggested that we move there all together.”
“Are you really going to live in the monastery with all of your children?” the teacher asked in a choked voice.
“Certainly not!” Tatiana answered, laughing. “We will live in a village nearby. I am going to see the house. My sister is staying with the children, while I am away, because it would have been too expensive for us to travel together. But she must manage alone, she is doing it not for the first time. We do have potential buyers seeing our apartment… We have nothing to do in city. I realized it long ago.”
“How are you going to give an education to your children there?” the teacher wondered in a totally unfriendly tone.
“Their souls need to be saved,” Tatiana answered simply and turned to the window.
It got quiet in the compartment. Each was immersed in his own thoughts.
Tatiana was trying to stifle her concerns about her children by dreams of the sixth baby (and she suspected she was already pregnant), fancying a cozy house in which they would all live together in harmony. She imagined how they would go to church, and all the girls would wear white headscarves… They couldn’t enjoy such a happy life in the city, where it was inconvenient for them to travel long distances. In the country there would be no “awful” doctors who each time detected new diseases in her, alarmed her with prospects of death, and tried to persuade her to have an abortion, though they themselves had become dead long ago… There, in the open air, she would recover, get her blood levels back to normal, and would stop fainting (which scared her children stiff)…
And Igor Viktorovich suddenly recalled… Ryzhik. This was a little squirrel-like baby rabbit that he loved so dearly when he was a boy about five. It was at his grandmother’s in the village—he took it away from the mother rabbit and laid it into a big basket. Then he placed the basket under the bed, fed the bunny on grass and watched it hop around the room. Ryzhik had a strikingly clever muzzle and expressive, big, black eyes. In the compartment, Igor Viktorovich suddenly clearly felt the tenderness of its furry skin on his cheek and its smell of a baby, a winter felt boot, and milk. As he looked at this naïve girl, Asya, he had very similar feelings and was so grateful to her for her fantasies, in which there was something real, something very beautiful and stirring. And Ryzhik came back to his memory again. One day after he, little Igor, had spent the whole day by the river, he completely forgot his bunny, giving it neither food nor drink. He didn’t remember his pet until the nighttime. He jumped out of bed, turned on the light, and took the basket from under the bed… The baby rabbit, though still warm, was dead. Instantly the boy realized that he would never be able to survive this loss and his own guilt. He called his grandmother with his speechless lips, and she heard his silent call and woke up. Then she wrapped Ryzhik into her shawl and went up to the icons. Igor Viktorovich recalled how he had prayed—for the first and last time—while weeping loudly and clasping his hands to his breast. And next he clasped the rabbit that had come back to life to his breast, enjoying the strong pushes of its hind legs with which it scratched his belly all over that night. Later his mother explained that the bunny had not died: it had just been in a dead faint; but as soon as grandmother warmed it the pet came around; but the dead cannot be revived. At that moment the sense of the miracle (which he had nearly gotten used to and which had made his life so full and wonderful) left the boy. Why did his mother do it? Then Igor Viktorovich remembered his son with his daughter-in-law, and his grandson, whom he had not seen for a year. And he suddenly understood why he found the teacher in the compartment so disagreeable—she reminded him of his own wife. She too could ask her son who had brought his girlfriend home with him for the first time: “Where on earth did you dig her up?” It is good that she didn’t ask that in the girlfriend’s presence, though she could have done this… The girl was like Asya and even Tatiana—they were “from the same production line”. The future wife “didn’t suit his wife's tastes”. He, Igor Viktorovich, a very busy factory director, had tried not to get into the heart of the conflict with his son’s family, though he missed them. Now he began to see things in a different light. Glory be to God that he had refused to travel in a sleeper and bought a ticket to an ordinary car and thus met Asya… Glory to God.
The teacher was sitting, trying not to think about anything, and scrutinizing her own hands. She had always been proud of them—they were narrow, with long aristocratic fingers and a perfect manicure. But now they looked like the talons of a bird of prey. It seemed as if all of her five unborn babies were kicking in her lower abdomen. This is what she had already experienced before and ended up in hospital… What if the same thing was happening again? And she was overwhelmed by intense hatred towards these two women—her fellow travelers. “They are to blame for everything! Why are they here?”
And Asya, filled with love for all these people who were nearly strangers to her, looked at a Russian cemetery that was gliding by outside the train windows—it was gaily decorated and “merry” before Pascha. Newly painted fences, with tender paper flowers attached to delicate crosses fluttering in the wind. Although the cemetery was quite far off, and, of course, she couldn’t have seen all of this, Asya who had never been to any cemetery before knew all about these flowers perfectly well.
And it seemed to Asya that the waves of love that she felt so keenly and that were flowing from the shabby village houses to the well-groomed graves and back—from the departed to the living—were washing over her, Tatiana, Igor Viktorovich, and even the history teacher who opposed them…