Around Her by Bruce Costello

A Russian peasant regrets her literacy; by Bruce Costello.

Agafya hears a knocking and through drowsy eyes watches her shrivelled granny leave the table and shuffle to the door of the hut. A familiar figure stands there, silhouetted against the sunlight that floods into the gloom.

Doctor Chekhov enters, greets Granny, goes to the bench where Agafya is lying, and bends to ask how she is feeling.

"So tired. Just awful all over. Can't do anything."

"Let me take a look."

His hands, twice the size of hers, are warm and soft. He has beautiful eyes. So brown with good-natured wrinkles at the corners. And the whites of his eyes under the funny glasses are bright and clear, like the full moon on a frosty night. They say he writes stories, grows flowers and loves all animals, especially dogs. He doctors to peasants without being paid.

"Well, it's not typhus," Dr Chekhov says, with a smile. "And your vital organs are in good shape. It's your nerves playing up again, same as last time. What we call melancholia. And little wonder."

He looks around the hut. Agafya sees him staring at Granny, who has returned to the table, on which a half-eaten loaf of black bread is crawling with cockroaches.

"Really, Babushka," the doctor says. "You must not allow vermin to contaminate the food. That's how disease spreads."

"Yes, Sir."

He grunts, then pulls over a stool and sits close to Agafya. He takes her hand. She gazes into his face.

It's as if she's always known him. He makes her feel so special. Like he knows everything about her, but still cares. He asks nothing from her, and she knows he never will. Yes, he cares, loves, but not in the way other men do.

His nearness embraces the young woman like a sheepskin coat placed over a sleeping child. Like a child, she wants to touch his little beard with her fingers, but instead smiles up at him with big, blue eyes.

"Well, Agafya, I'd like to ask a few questions." He squeezes her hand. "Remind me, how old are you?"


"Still working at the cotton factory?"

"No. Got worked silly every day 'cept Holy Days, yelled at, paid hardly nothing. I done seven years of it. Now Father makes me work in the fields. It's real hard, but at least fields don't stink of chemicals that make you chuck up."

The doctor nods, frowning. "What's it like with your husband away in the army?"

"He's only got another eighteen years to go." Agafya giggles, and then glances towards her grandmother who is muttering under her breath, picking cockroaches from the bread and dropping them on the dirt floor.

"Agafya, what is it like for you?

"It's alright, I suppose. Do you really wanna know?"

"I'd like you to tell me." He tilts his head in a listening stance, like a thrush.

Agafya sits up, leans towards him and whispers: "He got drunk every Holy Day and beat the devil outta me. It's a sin to say, but I'm glad he got called up. It was wrong what he done. There oughta be a law against it."

"Yes," agrees the doctor. "Maybe there will be, sometime in the future. And perhaps one day there'll be honest policemen and judges." He raises an eyebrow. "Tell me, Agafya. Are you still doing lots of reading?"

"When I get time."

"It was marvellous how you taught yourself to read, with just a little help from the priest."

"It's the only thing I like doing. But it makes me unhappy."


Agafya glances again at her grandmother.

Still whispering, she tells the doctor about her friend Fyodor Fyodorovich, the priest's son, of their evening walks in the countryside, the things he'd spoken about, like the secret meetings he attended, police spies everywhere and a place called Siberia where people get sent.

"Fyodor gave me a story I hated, but I read it, over and over again."


Agafya's eyes fill with tears.

"What was the story called, do you remember?" the doctor asks.


"Oh, yes. About the lives of peasants." Dr Chekhov strokes his beard. "Do you remember who wrote it?"

"No. Fyodor found the story in some magazine and copied it out, just before he got took away by the secret police."

"And you hated the story but kept reading it? Can you explain what you mean, please?"

"Well, I dunno what I mean. I dunno what I'm meant to think."

The doctor smiles. "I'd like to hear what you do think."

"I'm not sure."

"Something about Muzhiki made you feel upset?"

Agafya falls silent for a while. "I think I was sad before I started reading it, just didn't know that I was, thought it was just the way things was. Then reading made me see things different."


"It's like... when you open the hut door, the sun shines in, and you suddenly see the cockroaches on the walls and the rat shit on the table."

"Quite so."

"And it's like, when you've been in the meadow, sniffing wild flowers and listening to nightingales, you come home to the hut - and the stink of vodka and stove smoke hits you like an axe, and your sister's husband's drunk and beating her up, and she's only got one front tooth, and Granddad's sitting over the stove with legs like sticks, coughing blood, shouting at everybody to shut up and you know he's gonna die soon and nobody cares. One less mouth to feed. And you'd seen all this before but never seen it for real. Then the tax man marches in with the policeman and the samovar gets took away because your family's got no money for taxes."

"Holy Mother of God!" Granny pushes her chair back, raising a little cloud of dust from the floor. "What sort of talk is this?" She throws up her hands. "It's a sin to talk like that! God have mercy on her soul and save her from burning in hell!"

"Oh, Granny!" Agafya cries out. "You might think it's a sin, but it's God's truth I'm talking."

"Shut your foul mouth. When your father hears the filth I've heard crossing your lips, he'll skin you alive! Holy Mother of God!"

"Madam," says Dr Chekhov quietly, "if you reveal something that you have overheard a patient saying in confidence to her doctor, it's you that will go straight to hell."

Granny's face goes white. She collapses back onto her chair and seems to shrink into herself.

"I didn't mean nothing, your Excellency."

"I should think not."

"I only wanna help her. Her father says she's out of her mind. Can't you give her medicine to fix her brain?"

Dr Chekhov shakes his head. "It's not that simple. The problem's not in her but around her."

He turns to Agafya. "Why don't you hop back to bed and get some sleep? I have to go now, but I'll drop by in a day or two." He stops in the doorway to give her a little wave and a big smile.

Silence descends on the hut, broken by the sound of a blowfly, trapped in a spider's web. It extricates itself and careers around the room, then crash lands, spinning upside down on the table in front of Granny, who appears not to notice.

The door bursts open and Agafya's father enters, a tall, black-bearded man in a sheepskin coat. He glares at Agafya through drunken red eyes.

"You oughta be ashamed of yourself, lazing all day," he bellows, "making out you're sick!"

"The doctor said there's nothing wrong with the lying little wench," says Granny.

Father towers over Agafya, fists drawn back, and then leans down, lowering his face till their noses almost touch.

"Up at dawn tomorrow and into the fields!"

"Yes, Father."

He spits on the floor, swears, slumps onto a bench and starts to snore.

Agafya stands, throws on a shawl, and goes into the garden to answer a call of nature. She thinks about Dr Chekhov, and how nice he is with her, and how different she feels inside herself after he's visited. She struggles to find words to describe this, but none come to mind. Perhaps some feelings don't have their own words, she muses.

Her thoughts turn to Fyodor Fyodorovich, wherever he is. She says a prayer for him, and recalls the strange things he'd spoken of - the coming revolution, police spies and that place called Siberia. And secret plans for city students to come to the villages to distribute pamphlets to peasants, who would need people like her to help them to read and understand.

A hawk rises from a field and floats low over Agafya's squatting figure, then lets out a cry, as if it knows what she is thinking, and flies towards the horizon where a dark cloud shaped like a broken sickle is tinged with red and gold in the last rays of the sun.


  1. Dr. Chekhov, Fyodor, Muzhiki, lots of references. Indeed, literacy is power but ironically revolution often leads to more suffering. Interesting story.

  2. A place where it's better not to feel or think too much? A hard setting to pull off, 19th century Russia, but you did it well.

  3. This is the kind of story that sinks into you. Bleak, but with a hint of hope that makes you want to know what happens to Agafya. It's really well done.

  4. Thanks for your comments, folk.

  5. Very well written, full of symbolism. Great sketch of people and place on the brink of change.