Tomorrow’s Dostoevsky’s 200th birthday. Here’s a story to celebrate.
A man about to die. It focuses his mind on what is important: How cold it is in the cell of the condemned.
Fyodor lay on the hard floor, folded into a fetal position to keep warm, his blanket under him to steal his body from the cold stone. The other prisoners did not talk of the justice they had worked for, schemed for, plotted for, some of them for years. They shivered in the cold cell, pulling their light blankets over them. They discussed the best way to be executed.
One said, “I prefer hanging.” His teeth were chattering loudly.
Another said, “Not me. Give me a firing squad.”
Still another chattered, “What if they miss?”
The vote was tied. Four for hanging, four for the firing squad.
They turned to Fyodor. “And you?”
“I prefer living,” the deep, hoarse voice of Fyodor Dostoyevsky said from his corner, then went back to his thoughts.
One of his compatriots shook him and whispered, “Where’s your God now?”
Fyodor did not answer. He turned his back toward the fellow and faced the wall. It was as empty as his future. He silently prayed the prayer he had learned as a boy from his mother, “Mother of God, My hope is in thee. Give me shelter under thy wing.” His fear of the dawn ahead dissolved.
Behind him, someone grumbled, “I wish the police had just shot me. I hate this waiting.”
“At least I’ll be warm,” one chattered. “When I’m dead.”
In another corner, someone was whimpering, afraid to die. The others ignored him. They were all afraid to die, but the rest of them took their fate stoically. They had known the consequences if the tsar turned against them.
The cell was large and dark. It could have held twice as many as the nine prisoners who had languished there for days as they awaited the executioner. If it had been crammed with prisoners, it would have been warmer from the men’s body heat. The tsar did not want to waste money on the condemned, so it was only bread and water for their nourishment for the last few days. And one meal a day at that.
To make the hours pass, Fyodor rested his mind from the chill and fell into a story. It was the story of his life as Fyodor Dostoevsky as a child. The odor of the halls of the Hospital for the Poor where his father worked as a physician, the patients coughing from consumption, the smell of urine in the halls from the sick and the dying. How could he ever forget that smell.
From the family’s residence, he watched through the parlor window prisoners progress down the street on their way to Siberia. Then there was the time he heard the cries of his nine-year-old friend, Natasha, raped. He ran to the garden behind the house.
The rapist gone, the girl lay on the ground, his father kneeling beside her, comforting her, then he raised her body the way Jesus must have raised the daughter of Jairus. He turned. Tears were falling from his eyes. He said to the boy, “Run. Get the police.”
There were fond memories too. His father reading Cervantes and his mother reading too. Reading the Gospels. Reading Job and his trials. Job was someone Fyodor understood. He and the old man were so alike.
Then he was in the woods near his family’s summer home, the ones his brother, Mikhail, referred to as Fedya’s Woods. He must have been eleven or twelve, his head leaning up against a tree, taking a break from his mushroom gathering. He was dreaming that he was Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, whizzing around the forest on his light feet.
He heard a wolf’s growl, or so he thought.
A slight breeze cooled his face, tickling his nose. The woods were quiet, the birch filling the air with their minty odor. The birds had forgotten to sing when, only a few minutes ago, they were singing their hearts out. Then a crackle and a soft padding of the wolf nearby. He smelled the beast, stalking him.
Like a frightened deer, Fyodor upped and ran. He ran hard, crying, “Wolf.” He ran into the field nearby. The old serf, Marey, caught him and pulled him into his ancient arms the way a tree’s branches often pulled him into the tree. Then the old man held him as if he was his son. He combed his hands through Fyodor’s blond hair. The man spoke the prayer his mother taught him, “Mother of God, My hope is in thee. Give this boy shelter under thy wing.” The serf looked into Fyodor’s eyes and Fyodor felt safer than he had ever felt. He could still recall the serf’s eyes, the kindest eyes he had ever seen.
Fyodor remembered his last words to his brother Mikhail as he toasted his brother on the older man’s name day. “To my closest friend and the greatest man I know.” Mikhail’s face appeared before him and reminded him of all the games, all the books, all the songs the two had shared together. He would never see Mikhail again. At least, not in this life.
Lying in his corner of the prison cell, Fyodor fell into a deep sleep. He stood beside his mother’s open coffin before the altar in the Church of the Holy Spirit and beneath the painting of the Raising of Lazarus. She wore a fine lace dress, her curls falling to her shoulders. Her face a peaceful face, her body relieved of the suffering from her tuberculosis. Her eyes opened. “Fedya,” she said, “don’t be afraid. God is with you. God is with you.”
Fyodor woke up. The cell door squeaked open. Into the room stepped a priest, carrying a lantern. The door closed behind him and he hung the lantern on the wall. Fyodor pulled his body up and leaned against the wall.
“I am Father Valentin,” the priest said, his beard covering his chest. “I am here to hear your confession if any of you would like.”
“Go away,” the atheist shouted at the priest. Not just at the priest. At God as well. “Get the hell out of here.”
“No.” Fyodor’s voice was fearless, so fearless the atheist cowered into a corner. “I will say my confession.”
Father Valentin walked over to Fyodor and sat down and faced Fyodor. “Yes, my son?” the priest asked.
Fyodor whispered his confession. The priest gave Dostoyevsky his cross. Fyodor kissed it. The priest rose moved on to the others. Each of the prisoners spoke to the priest. Finally it was the atheist’s turn and he too whispered some words.”Just in case,” he said as the priest called to the guard outside the large wooden door.
The door opened. In stepped the Sergeant of the Guard, followed by four of his men. The guards threw a white shroud to each of the prisoners. “Put these on,” the Sergeant ordered.
“Just take us out and shoot us,” the atheist demanded.
The Sergeant drew his sword and hit the atheist over his head with its broadside. The prisoner’s head was bleeding.
“Anybody else?” The Sergeant looked around the cell for any resistance. Then he said, “Put these on. You first.” His sword pointed at the atheist.
The atheist wiped his blood from his head and grabbed the shroud and slipped it over his head. “Bloody marvelous,” he said. The dried red smeared across the man’s shroud.
Each of the other prisoners stood and pulled his shroud over his head.
“Now out with you,” the Sergeant ordered. The prisoners one by one went through the cell door.
Fyodor emerged from the cell and into the hall. A tall, young guard grabbed his hands and pulled them around to his back, wrapped a rope around his wrists, pulled it tight and knotted it. The rope cut into Fyodor, feeling like it was reaching into the bone.
When he was finished with the group of them, the Sergeant of the Guard addressed them. “Follow me, please.”
The Sergeant and two guards led the way while others followed the prisoners. All was quiet in the hall, except for the drumming of the boots of the soldiers against the floor. The prisoners passed the lanterns on the wall, each one a little closer to the end, each one falling away like seconds on a watch.
As the prisoners emerged from the darkness and into the day of Semenovsky Square, the morning sun blasted their eyes with its light. The Sergeant and two of his men broke the prisoners up into groups of three. He led the first group to three wooden stakes and tied them to the poles with rope.
When he finished, he returned for the next three prisoners. Fyodor was the middle man. The snow bit into his bare feet as he was rushed across the field. The Sergeant roped him to the stake. Fyodor’s feet numbed from the snow.
The Sergeant moved, finishing Dostoyevsky’s group, the third group. He grabbed a bottle of vodka from the hall and walked over to the first prisoner in the first group.
“Would you care to drink a toast to the Tsar?” he asked.
“Yes, please,” the prisoner said, the one who had been crying in the corner the night before.
The Sergeant uncapped the bottle, raised it and said, “To the Tsar.” He drank from the bottle, then poured a few drops into the prisoner. He continued onto to the next prisoner, and the next.
As the sun glared in his eyes and blinded Fyodor, the Sergeant came to him. Jesus hung on a cross, between two thieves. A Roman gave Jesus wine. Fyodor hung on a stake between two comrades. A Russian soldier gave him wine too. Was he dying to save his world? Was he dying so that others might live? He shook away the thought. It was blasphemy. It must be. And this was no time for blasphemy. “Would you like to toast the Tsar?” the Sergeant asked.
Fyodor looked deep into the man’s dark eyes. “I would like to toast God.”
“Very well then.” The soldier raised the bottle to the prisoner’s lips. Fyodor took his drink. It wetted his dry lips, lips starting to chap. The liquor warmed him as he went down.
Then the Sergeant raised the bottle. “To God, and may the Devil take him.” He laughed and drank. He stepped to the next prisoner.
The Sergeant finally reached the last prisoner. “None for you,” he said, indicating the bottle. The atheist spit into his face. “Damn you,” the jailer shouted at the prisoner. He drew his sword. Twice he sliced the prisoner’s face. “Take that to hell, and tell the Devil that it was Nicolai Nikolaevich who did it to you.”
Fyodor prayed softly, “Mother of God, My hope is in thee. Give me shelter under thy wing.” Then he saw Mikhail’s image one final time. “Be a good man, Mikhail,” he spoke to the morning. “Soon we will be together again. With Mother and Father.”
A firing squad marched out before the first three of the prisoners. The men turned toward the prisoners.
Fyodor tempered himself against what was about to come. “Mother of God, My hope is in thee. Give me shelter under thy wing.”
The officer of the squad called out, “Raise your guns.”
“Mother of God, My hope is in thee. Give me shelter under thy wing.”
“Mother of God, My hope is in thee. Give me shelter under thy wing.”
A horse with a rider galloped through the gate of the fortress, the man on horseback crying, “Wait.”
A few moments later, the officer shouted to the prisoners, “The Tsar in his magnificent justice has given you scum a reprieve. You shall not die this day. Instead Siberia will be your new home.”