For hours now the Last Supper has been over,
And the beating almost over, and morning’s cry
Yet to be heard by the workmen in the courtyard
Warming themselves by the hasty fire, and Peter,
Near the agony in the garden, feeling something
Terrible happening, blinking back stale sleep,
Peter turns his face from strangers’ stares.
“This man also was with Jesus.” The others
Slowly turning toward him with cold interest,
And his own voice, thick-tongued: “I do not know him.”
That the cock crows not then but at the third No
Must tell us much about the nature of faith,
How it leans on separations, how it robes simple
Gestures—a hand waving from an open window—
With deferral, as if real knowledge only comes after,
As though Peter could only see what he’d done
Upon going from the high priest’s courtyard
And, all alone, weeping bitterly in the dawn.
That much we can understand, but why then
Does Chekhov revisit this known, hard ground
With a half-frozen student who, on his way back
From a failed hunt, thinks how this same chill
Easter wind must have blown in Rurik’s age
And scourged the hungry poor in the years
Of Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible?
Wind, raw wind, hunger, icy needles of rain . . .
The same as then—until, coming on two widows,
A huge, shapeless old woman in a man’s overcoat
And her putty-faced daughter washing a kettle,
The student asks if he might share their fire,
Saying, as he does, that St. Peter had on such
A night warmed himself before a fire, on such
A cold, extraordinarily long and terrible night.
Murmuring welcomes, they bring him inside,
And soon he finds himself describing in detail
That part of the gospel which is Peter’s betrayal:
“. . . thus I imagine it: the garden deathly still
And very dark, and in the silence came
Sounds of muffled sobbing—” Here his account
Breaks off when the absently-smiling Vasilissa
Suddenly weeps, burying her eyes in her apron;
Whereupon her daughter, herself bowed down
By sickness and filth, blushes and turns away.
The student, for all his theology, is speechless.
There’s nothing for it now but to step out
With empty game-bag and find his moonlit
Way back home across the ancient marsh.
Only then does he see in the waterlogged
Meadow, well beyond the river’s sedges,
Something remarkable: a high-walled garden
Looming green against a background of sand.
Nineteen hundred years crossed in heartbeats!
In that kindled instant all the world’s travails
Drop from his shoulders. Just twenty-two,
He has found the very quick of faith.
Gone are hunger, sleet and useless words. Gone!
Ah, we leave him there at century’s end,
Before he has returned to his village
—And all that returning would surely mean—
In this, the briefest of the master’s stories.