A Little Joke


Isaac Ilyich Levitan, Snow-Covered Meadow, c. 1890

by Anton Chekhov, translated by Zooey Park

A clear, wintry midday… The frost is strong, crackling and Nadenka is holding my arm, the curls at her temples and the down on her upper lip covered with silver frost. We stand on a high hill. From our feet to the ground stretches a sloping plane into which the sun looks, as though it were a mirror. Near us is a small sleigh upholstered in bright-red cloth.

“Let’s go down, Nadezhda Petrovna!” I beg. “Just once! I assure you we’ll stay in one piece and unhurt.”

But Nadenka is afraid. The whole space from her little galoshes to the end of the ice hill seems to her a terrible, immeasurably deep abyss. Her spirit falters, and her breath catches in her throat as she looks down when I only suggest getting on the sleigh, but what will happen yet if she ventures to fly into the abyss! She would die, descend into madness.

“I beg you!” I say. “Don’t be afraid! Understand, this is gutless, cowardly!”

Nadenka finally gives in, and from her face I can see that she’s giving way at the risk of her life. I put her, pale, trembling, on the sleigh, put my arm around her, and together with her, I fall into the abyss.

The sleigh flies like a bullet. The sliced air hits you in the face, roars, whistles in your ears, rips, stings painfully with anger, wants to rip your head off your shoulders. From the pressure of the wind, there’s no strength to breathe. It seems that the devil himself has wrapped his paws around us and is, with a roar, dragging us to hell. Surrounding objects merge into one long, rapidly running streak… Just, just one moment more and it seems — we will die!

“I love you, Nadya!” I say in a soft voice.

The sleigh begins to run quieter and quieter, the roar of the wind and the buzz of the runners aren’t so terrible, breathing stops ceasing, and we’re finally at the bottom. Nadenka is neither alive nor dead. She’s pale, barely breathing… I help her up.

“No way am I going again,” she says, looking at me with wide, horrified eyes. “No way in the world! I almost died!”

A little later she comes to herself and already looks questioningly into my eyes: Had I really said those four words, or had she just heard them in the noise of the whirlwind? And I stand beside her smoking and carefully examine my glove.

She takes my arm, and for a long time we walk near the hill. The mystery, it seems, doesn’t give her peace. Were those words spoken or not? Yes or no? Yes or no? This is a question of vanity, honor, life, happiness, a very important question, the most important in the world. Nadya impatiently, sadly, with a penetrating gaze, looks into my face, answers inattentively, waits to see if I won’t speak. Oh, what a game playing on that sweet face, what a game! I see that she’s struggling with herself, that she needs to say something, to ask something, but she doesn’t find the words; she’s awkward, fearfully hindered by joy…

“You know what?” she says, not looking at me.

“What?” I ask.

“Come once more… we’ll ride.”

We climb the steps up the hill. Again I put pale, trembling Nadenka on the sleigh, again we fly into the terrible abyss, again the wind roars and the runners buzz, and again when the sleigh is at its strongest and noisiest dissemination, I speak in a soft voice:

“I love you, Nadenka!”

When the sleigh stops, Nadenka looks at the hill over which we’ve just rolled, then for a long time looks at my face, listens to my voice, indifferent and emotionless, and everything, everything, even her muff and hood, her whole figure, expresses extreme bewilderment. And all over her face is written: “What’s it all about? Who said those words? He, or did I just think I heard them?”

This uncertainty bothers her and drives her out of patience. The poor girl doesn’t answer questions, frowns, ready to cry.

“Shouldn’t we go home?” I ask.

“But I… I like this sledding,“ she says, reddening. “Shall we ride again?”

She “likes” this sledding, but in the meantime, as she gets on the sleigh she is, as in those previous times, pale, barely breathing from fear, trembling.

We go down for the third time, and I see how she looks at my face, watches my lips. But I put a handkerchief to my lips, cough, and when we reach the middle of the hill, I manage to utter:

“I love you, Nadya!”

And the mystery remains a mystery! Nadenka is silent, thinking about something… I walk her home from the ice rink, and she tries to walk quietly, slowing her steps and throughout waits to hear if I will say those words to her. And I can see how her soul suffers, how she makes an effort upon herself not to say:

“It can’t be that the wind said them! And I don’t want it to be the wind that said them!”

The next morning I get a little note: “If you go to the ice rink today, come for me. N.” And from that day, Nadenka and I start going to the ice rink every day and, flying down on the sleigh, I pronounce in a low voice one and the same words every time:

“I love you, Nadya!”

Soon Nadenka gets used to this phrase, as to wine or morphine. She can’t live without it. True, it’s still scary to fly down the hill, but now fear and danger give a special charm to words about love, words that still form a mystery and torment the soul. Suspected throughout are the same two… I and the wind. Which of the two confesses his love to her, she doesn’t know, but apparently it’s all the same to her; from which vessel to drink — it’s all the same, so long as you’re drunk.

Some afternoon, I set off for the ice rink alone; mingling with the crowd, I see how Nadenka approaches the hill, how she searches for me with her eyes… Then she goes timidly up the steps… She’s terrified to go alone — oh, how terrified! She’s as pale as snow; shivering, she goes exactly as to an execution, but she goes, goes without looking back, determinedly. She evidently has decided finally to try it: will those amazing sweet words be heard when I’m not there? I see her, pale, with her mouth open from horror, get on the sleigh, close her eyes, say farewell to the earth forever, and leave off from the site… “Jzjzjzjz…” buzzes the runners. Whether Nadenka hears those words I don’t know… I see only that she rises from the sleigh, exhausted, weak. And one can see on her face that she herself doesn’t know if she heard something or not. Fear, as she rolled down, took away her ability to hear, to distinguish sounds, to understand…

But here comes the spring month of March… the sun is becoming more affectionate. Our ice hill darkens, loses its luster, and finally melts. We stop sledding. Poor Nadenka nowhere more hears those words, yes, and nobody to say them, since the wind isn’t heard and I’m going to Petersburg — for a long time, probably forever.

Sometime before leaving in a day or two, at dusk I sit in the garden, and the yard where Nadenka lives is separated from the garden by a high fence with nails… It’s still cold enough, under the manure there’s still snow, the trees are dead but it already smells like spring, and the rooks are calling noisily as they lay down for the night. I walk over to the fence and look for a long while through a slit. I see Nadenka come out on the porch and fix a sad, yearning gaze at the sky… The spring wind blows directly into her pale, despondent face… It reminds her of that wind that roared to us then on the hill, when she heard those four words, and her face becomes sad, sad, and down her cheek crawls a teardrop… And the poor girl holds out both hands, as though begging this wind to bring her those words once more. And I, waiting for the wind, say in a low voice:

“I love you, Nadya!”

My God, what it does to Nadenka! She screams, smiles all over her face, and stretches her arms out to the wind, happy, joyful, so beautiful.

And I go to pack…

That was already a long time ago. Now Nadenka’s already married; she’s been married off, or she’s married herself off — it’s all the same — to the secretary of the Nobility Wardenship and now she already has three children. How we together once went to the ice rink, and how the wind brought to her the words “I love you, Nadenka,” isn’t forgotten; for her now, it’s the most joyous, most touching, and beautiful memory in her life…

And now, when I’ve become older, it’s no longer clear why I said those words, why I joked…

About the Author

Anton Chekhov was a Russian writer famed for his plays and short stories.

About the Translator

Zooey Park is a Korean-American filmmaker. He has a law degree from Syracuse University. His translations of Pushkin’s poetry have been published in Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics.

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