"A Child's Lent Remembered"
An excerpt from Ivan Shmelyov's "Anno Domini", a wistful recollection of
life in his pious, old-fashioned, well-to-do home in pre-Revolutionary
translated from the Russian by Maria Belaeff and published in "Orthodox
America", v5, #7, February 1985. Posted with permission of the editors.
I waken from harsh light in my room: a bare kind of light,
cold dismal. Yes, it's Great Lent today. The pink curtains, with
their hunters and their ducks, have already been taken down while
I slept, and that's why it's so bare and dismal in the room. It's
Clean Monday today for us, and everything in our house is being
Greyish weather, the thaw. The dripping beyond the window is
like weeping. Our old carpenter - Gorkin, "the panel man" - said
yesterday that when Lady Shrovetide leaves, she'll weep. And so
she is - drip...drip...drip... There she goes!
I look at the paper flowers reduced to shreds, at the gold-
glazed "Shrovetide" sweetcake - a toy, brought back from the baths
yesterday; gone are the little bears, gone are the little hills -
vanished, the joy. And a joyous something begins to fuss in my
heart; now everything is new, different. Now it'll be "the soul
beginning" - Gorkin told me all about it yesterday. "It's time to
ready the soul." To prepare for Communion, to keep the fast, to
make ready for the Bright Day.
"Send One-eye in to see me!" I hear Father's angry shouting.
Father has not gone out on business; it's a special day today,
very strict. Father rarely shouts. Something important has
happened. But after all, he forgave the man for drinking; he
cancelled all his sins; yesterday was the day of Forgiveness. And
Vasil-Vasillich forgave us all too, that's exactly what he said in
the dining room, kneeling: "I forgive you all!" So why is father
The door opens, Gorkin comes in with a gleaming copper basin.
Oh, yes, to smoke out Lady Shrovetide! There's a hot brick in the
basin, and mint, and they pour vinegar over them. My old nurse,
Domnushka, follows Gorkin around and does the pouring; it hisses in
the basin and a tart steam rises - a sacred steam. I can smell it
even now, across the distance of the years. Sacred... that's what
Gorkin calls it. He goes to all the corners and gently swirls the
basin. And then he swirls it over me.
"Get up dearie, don't pamper yourself," he speaks lovingly to
me, sliding the basin under the skirt of the bed. "Where's she hid
herself in your room, fat old Lady Shrovetide... We'll drive her
out! Lent has arrived... We'll be going to the Lenten market, the
choir from St. Basil's will be singing 'My soul, my soul arise;'
you won't be able to tear yourself away."
That unforgettable, that sacred smell. The smell of Great
Lent. And Gorkin himself, completely special - as if he were kind
of sacred too. Way before light, he had already gone to the bath,
steamed himself thouroughly, put on everything clean. Clean Monday
today! Only the kazakin is old; today only the most workaday
clothes may be worn, that's "the law."
And it's a sin to laugh, and you have to rub a bit of oil on
your head, like Gorkin. He'll be eating without oil now, but you
have to oil the head, it's the law, "for the prayer's sake."
There's a glow about him, from his little grey beard, all silver
really, from the neatly combed head. I know for a fact that he's
a saint. They're like that, God's people, that please Him. And
his face is pink, like a cherubim's, from the cleanness. I know
that he's dried himself bits of black braed with salt, and all Lent
long he'll take them with his tea, "instead of sugar."
But why is Daddy angry... with Vasil-Vasillich, like that?
"Oh, sinfulness..." says Gorkin with a sigh. "It's hard to
break habits, and now everything is strict, Lent. And, well, they
get angry. But you hold fast now, think about your soul. It's the
season, all the same as if the latter days were come... that's the
law! You just recite, "O Lord and Master of my life..." and be
And I begin silently reciting the recently memorized Lenten
The rooms are quiet and deserted, full of that sacred smell.
In the front room, before the reddish icon of the Crucifixion, a
very old one, from our sainted great-grandmother who was an Old
Believer; a "lenten" lampada of clear glass has been lit, and now
it will burn unextinguished until Pascha. When Father lights it -
on Saturdays he lights all the lampadas himself - he always sings
softly, in a pleasant-sad way: "Before Thy Cross, we bow down, O
Master," and I would sing softly after him, that wonderful refrain:
"And Thy ho-ly.. Re-sur-re-e-ec-tion, we glo-ri-fy!"
A joy-to-tears beats inside my soul, shining from these words.
And I behold it, behind the long file of lenten days - the Holy
Resurrection, in lights. A joyful little prayer! It casts a
kindly beam of light upon these sad days of Lent.
I begin to imagine that now the old life is coming to an end,
and it's time to prepare for that other life, which will be...
where? Somewhere, in the heavens. You have to cleanse the soul of
all sinfulness, and that's why everything around you is different.
And something special is at our side, invisible and fearful.
Gorkin told me that now, "it's like when the soul is parting from
the body." THEY keep watch, to snatch away the soul, and all the
while the soul trembles and wails: "Woe is me, I am cursed!" They
read about it in church now, at the Standings.
"Because they can sense that their end is coming near, that
Christ will rise! And that's why we're a-given Lent for, to keep
close to church, to live to see the Bright Day. And not to
reflect, you understand. About earthly things, do not reflect!
And they'll be ringing everywhere: 'Think back!... Think back!..."
He made the words boom inside him nicely.
Throughout the house the window vents are open, and you can
hear the mournful cry and summons of the bells, ringing before the
services: think-back.. think-back. That's the piteous bell, crying
for the soul. It's called the Lenten peal.
They've taken the shutters down from the widows, and it'll be
that way, poor-looking, clear until Pascha. In the drawing-room
there are grey slip-covers on the furniture; the lamps are bundled
up into cocoons, and even the one painting, "The Beauty at the
Feast," is draped over with a sheet. That was the suggestion of
His Eminence. Shook his head sadly and said: "A sinful and
tempting picture!" But Father likes it a lot - such class! Also
draped is the engraving which Father for some reason calls "the
sweetcake one", it shows a little old man dancing, and an old woman
hitting him with a broom. That one His Eminence liked a great
deal, even laughed.
All the housefolk are very serious, in workday clothes with
patches, and I was told also to put on the jacket with the worn-
through elbows. The rugs have been taken out; it's such a lark now
to skate across the parquet. Only it's scary to try - Great Lent:
skate hard and you'll break a leg. Not a crumb left over from
Shrovetide, mustn't be so much as a trace of it in the air. Even
the sturgeon in aspic was passed down to the kitchen yesterday.
Only the very plainest dishes are left in the sideboard, the ones
with the dun spots and the cracks... for Great Lent.
In the front room there are bowls of yellow pickles, little
umbrellas of dill sticking out of them, and chopped cabbage, tart
and thickly dusted with anise - a delight. I grab pinches of it -
how it crunches! And I vow to myself to eat only lenten foods for
the duration of the fast. Why send my soul to perdition, since
everything tastes so good anyway! There'll be stewed fruit, potato
pancakes with prunes, "crosses" on the Week of the Cross... frozen
cranberries with sugar, candied nuts... And what about roast
buckwheat kasha with onions, washed down with kvass! And then
lenten pasties with milk-mushrooms, and then buckwheat pancakes
with onions on Saturdays... and the boiled wheat with marmalade on
the first Saturday... and almond milk with white kissel, and the
cranberry one with vanilla, and the grand kuliebiak on
Annunciation... Can it be that THERE, where everyone goes to from
this life, ther will be such lenten fare!
And why is everyone so dull-looking? Why, everything is so...
so different, and there is much, so much that is joyous. Today
they'll bring the first ice and begin to line the cellars - the
whole yard will be stacked with it. We'll go to the "Lenten
Market," where I've never been... I begin jumping up and down with
joy, but they stop me: "It's Lent, don't dare! Just wait and see,
you'll break your leg!"
Fear comes over me. I look at the Crucifixion. He suffers,
the Son of God! But how is it that God... How did He allow it?...
I have the sense that herein lies the great mystery itself -