A.P. Chekhov - Sleepy
NIGHT. Varka, the little nurse, a girl of thirteen, is rocking
the cradle in which the baby is lying, and humming hardly
"Hush-a-bye, my baby wee,
While I sing a song for thee."
A little green lamp is burning before the ikon; there is a
string stretched from one end of the room to the other, on which
baby-clothes and a pair of big black trousers are hanging. There
is a big patch of green on the ceiling from the ikon lamp, and
the baby-clothes and the trousers throw long shadows on the
stove, on the cradle, and on Varka. . . . When the lamp begins
to flicker, the green patch and the shadows come to life, and
are set in motion, as though by the wind. It is stuffy. There is
a smell of cabbage soup, and of the inside of a boot-shop.
The baby's crying. For a long while he has been hoarse and
exhausted with crying; but he still goes on screaming, and there
is no knowing when he will stop. And Varka is sleepy. Her eyes
are glued together, her head droops, her neck aches. She cannot
move her eyelids or her lips, and she feels as though her face
is dried and wooden, as though her head has become as small as
the head of a pin.
"Hush-a-bye, my baby wee," she hums, "while I cook the groats
for thee. . . ."
A cricket is churring in the stove. Through the door in the next
room the master and the apprentice Afanasy are snoring. . . .
The cradle creaks plaintively, Varka murmurs -- and it all
blends into that soothing music of the night to which it is so
sweet to listen, when one is lying in bed. Now that music is
merely irritating and oppressive, because it goads her to sleep,
and she must not sleep; if Varka -- God forbid! -- should fall
asleep, her master and mistress would beat her.
The lamp flickers. The patch of green and the shadows are set in
motion, forcing themselves on Varka's fixed, half-open eyes, and
in her half slumbering brain are fashioned into misty visions.
She sees dark clouds chasing one another over the sky, and
screaming like the baby. But then the wind blows, the clouds are
gone, and Varka sees a broad high road covered with liquid mud;
along the high road stretch files of wagons, while people with
wallets on their backs are trudging along and shadows flit
backwards and forwards; on both sides she can see forests
through the cold harsh mist. All at once the people with their
wallets and their shadows fall on the ground in the liquid mud.
"What is that for?" Varka asks. "To sleep, to sleep!" they
answer her. And they fall sound asleep, and sleep sweetly, while
crows and magpies sit on the telegraph wires, scream like the
baby, and try to wake them.
"Hush-a-bye, my baby wee, and I will sing a song to thee,"
murmurs Varka, and now she sees herself in a dark stuffy hut.
Her dead father, Yefim Stepanov, is tossing from side to side on
the floor. She does not see him, but she hears him moaning and
rolling on the floor from pain. "His guts have burst," as he
says; the pain is so violent that he cannot utter a single word,
and can only draw in his breath and clack his teeth like the
rattling of a drum:
"Boo--boo--boo--boo. . . ."
Her mother, Pelageya, has run to the master's house to say that
Yefim is dying. She has been gone a long time, and ought to be
back. Varka lies awake on the stove, and hears her father's
"boo--boo--boo." And then she hears someone has driven up to the
hut. It is a young doctor from the town, who has been sent from
the big house where he is staying on a visit. The doctor comes
into the hut; he cannot be seen in the darkness, but he can be
heard coughing and rattling the door.
"Light a candle," he says.
"Boo--boo--boo," answers Yefim.
Pelageya rushes to the stove and begins looking for the broken
pot with the matches. A minute passes in silence. The doctor,
feeling in his pocket, lights a match.
"In a minute, sir, in a minute," says Pelageya. She rushes out
of the hut, and soon afterwards comes back with a bit of candle.
Yefim's cheeks are rosy and his eyes are shining, and there is a
peculiar keenness in his glance, as though he were seeing right
through the hut and the doctor.
"Come, what is it? What are you thinking about?" says the
doctor, bending down to him. "Aha! have you had this long?"
"What? Dying, your honour, my hour has come. . . . I am not to
stay among the living."
"Don't talk nonsense! We will cure you!"
"That's as you please, your honour, we humbly thank you, only we
understand. . . . Since death has come, there it is."
The doctor spends a quarter of an hour over Yefim, then he gets
up and says:
"I can do nothing. You must go into the hospital, there they
will operate on you. Go at once . . . You must go! It's rather
late, they will all be asleep in the hospital, but that doesn't
matter, I will give you a note. Do you hear?"
"Kind sir, but what can he go in?" says Pelageya. "We have no
"Never mind. I'll ask your master, he'll let you have a horse."
The doctor goes away, the candle goes out, and again there is
the sound of "boo--boo--boo." Half an hour later someone drives
up to the hut. A cart has been sent to take Yefim to the
hospital. He gets ready and goes. . . .
But now it is a clear bright morning. Pelageya is not at home;
she has gone to the hospital to find what is being done to Yefim.
Somewhere there is a baby crying, and Varka hears someone
singing with her own voice:
"Hush-a-bye, my baby wee, I will sing a song to thee."
Pelageya comes back; she crosses herself and whispers:
"They put him to rights in the night, but towards morning he
gave up his soul to God. . . . The Kingdom of Heaven be his and
peace everlasting. . . . They say he was taken too late. . . .
He ought to have gone sooner. . . ."
Varka goes out into the road and cries there, but all at once
someone hits her on the back of her head so hard that her
forehead knocks against a birch tree. She raises her eyes, and
sees facing her, her master, the shoemaker.
"What are you about, you scabby slut?" he says. "The child is
crying, and you are asleep!"
He gives her a sharp slap behind the ear, and she shakes her
head, rocks the cradle, and murmurs her song. The green patch
and the shadows from the trousers and the baby-clothes move up
and down, nod to her, and soon take possession of her brain
again. Again she sees the high road covered with liquid mud. The
people with wallets on their backs and the shadows have lain
down and are fast asleep. Looking at them, Varka has a
passionate longing for sleep; she would lie down with enjoyment,
but her mother Pelageya is walking beside her, hurrying her on.
They are hastening together to the town to find situations.
"Give alms, for Christ's sake!" her mother begs of the people
they meet. "Show us the Divine Mercy, kind-hearted gentlefolk!"
"Give the baby here!" a familiar voice answers. "Give the baby
here!" the same voice repeats, this time harshly and angrily.
"Are you asleep, you wretched girl?"
Varka jumps up, and looking round grasps what is the matter:
there is no high road, no Pelageya, no people meeting them,
there is only her mistress, who has come to feed the baby, and
is standing in the middle of the room. While the stout,
broad-shouldered woman nurses the child and soothes it, Varka
stands looking at her and waiting till she has done. And outside
the windows the air is already turning blue, the shadows and the
green patch on the ceiling are visibly growing pale, it will
soon be morning.
"Take him," says her mistress, buttoning up her chemise over her
bosom; "he is crying. He must be bewitched."
Varka takes the baby, puts him in the cradle and begins rocking
it again. The green patch and the shadows gradually disappear,
and now there is nothing to force itself on her eyes and cloud
her brain. But she is as sleepy as before, fearfully sleepy!
Varka lays her head on the edge of the cradle, and rocks her
whole body to overcome her sleepiness, but yet her eyes are
glued together, and her head is heavy.
"Varka, heat the stove!" she hears the master's voice through
So it is time to get up and set to work. Varka leaves the
cradle, and runs to the shed for firewood. She is glad. When one
moves and runs about, one is not so sleepy as when one is
sitting down. She brings the wood, heats the stove, and feels
that her wooden face is getting supple again, and that her
thoughts are growing clearer.
"Varka, set the samovar!" shouts her mistress.
Varka splits a piece of wood, but has scarcely time to light the
splinters and put them in the samovar, when she hears a fresh
"Varka, clean the master's goloshes!"
She sits down on the floor, cleans the goloshes, and thinks how
nice it would be to put her head into a big deep golosh, and
have a little nap in it. . . . And all at once the golosh grows,
swells, fills up the whole room. Varka drops the brush, but at
once shakes her head, opens her eyes wide, and tries to look at
things so that they may not grow big and move before her eyes.
"Varka, wash the steps outside; I am ashamed for the customers
to see them!"
Varka washes the steps, sweeps and dusts the rooms, then heats
another stove and runs to the shop. There is a great deal of
work: she hasn't one minute free.
But nothing is so hard as standing in the same place at the
kitchen table peeling potatoes. Her head droops over the table,
the potatoes dance before her eyes, the knife tumbles out of her
hand while her fat, angry mistress is moving about near her with
her sleeves tucked up, talking so loud that it makes a ringing
in Varka's ears. It is agonising, too, to wait at dinner, to
wash, to sew, there are minutes when she longs to flop on to the
floor regardless of everything, and to sleep.
The day passes. Seeing the windows getting dark, Varka presses
her temples that feel as though they were made of wood, and
smiles, though she does not know why. The dusk of evening
caresses her eyes that will hardly keep open, and promises her
sound sleep soon. In the evening visitors come.
"Varka, set the samovar!" shouts her mistress. The samovar is a
little one, and before the visitors have drunk all the tea they
want, she has to heat it five times. After tea Varka stands for
a whole hour on the same spot, looking at the visitors, and
waiting for orders.
"Varka, run and buy three bottles of beer!"
She starts off, and tries to run as quickly as she can, to drive
"Varka, fetch some vodka! Varka, where's the corkscrew? Varka,
clean a herring!"
But now, at last, the visitors have gone; the lights are put
out, the master and mistress go to bed.
"Varka, rock the baby!" she hears the last order.
The cricket churrs in the stove; the green patch on the ceiling
and the shadows from the trousers and the baby-clothes force
themselves on Varka's half-opened eyes again, wink at her and
cloud her mind.
"Hush-a-bye, my baby wee," she murmurs, "and I will sing a song
And the baby screams, and is worn out with screaming. Again
Varka sees the muddy high road, the people with wallets, her
mother Pelageya, her father Yefim. She understands everything,
she recognises everyone, but through her half sleep she cannot
understand the force which binds her, hand and foot, weighs upon
her, and prevents her from living. She looks round, searches for
that force that she may escape from it, but she cannot find it.
At last, tired to death, she does her very utmost, strains her
eyes, looks up at the flickering green patch, and listening to
the screaming, finds the foe who will not let her live.
That foe is the baby.
She laughs. It seems strange to her that she has failed to grasp
such a simple thing before. The green patch, the shadows, and
the cricket seem to laugh and wonder too.
The hallucination takes possession of Varka. She gets up from
her stool, and with a broad smile on her face and wide
unblinking eyes, she walks up and down the room. She feels
pleased and tickled at the thought that she will be rid directly
of the baby that binds her hand and foot. . . . Kill the baby
and then sleep, sleep, sleep. . . .
Laughing and winking and shaking her fingers at the green patch,
Varka steals up to the cradle and bends over the baby. When she
has strangled him, she quickly lies down on the floor, laughs
with delight that she can sleep, and in a minute is sleeping as
sound as the dead.
SLEEPY: a more accurate translation is "Let Me Sleep"
wallets: rolls, knapsacks