21 December 2009
From The Writer's Almanac ...
Vladimir Nabokov's short story "Christmas" is set on a country estate buried in snowdrifts outside St. Petersburg, Russia. The main character, Sleptsov, carries the coffin of his adolescent son to the village church plot, goes to bed, and wakes up on Christmas Eve Day.
He goes into the room that had been his son's summer study, separate from the main house and unheated, sits at his son's desk, and numbly sifts through some of the dead child's belongings. The son (like Nabokov himself) had enjoyed butterfly-collecting, and at the desk the father finds the tools of the hobby: cork-bottomed spreading boards, supplies of black pins, a torn muslin net, and "an English biscuit tin that contained a large exotic cocoon." Nabokov writes that the cocoon was "papery to the touch and seemed made of a brown folded leaf. His son had remembered it during his sickness, regretting that he had left it behind, but consoling himself with the thought that the chrysalid inside was probably dead."
Sleptsov sits, sobs, and returns to the main house carrying a few of his son's belongings, including the biscuit tin with the cocoon. He reads from his son's diary, realizes that his son was infatuated with a girl he'll never know about, and begins another round of tears. He's convinced he'll die of grief, the next day, Christmas. He sees earthly life "totally bared and comprehensible — and ghastly in its sadness, humiliatingly pointless, sterile, devoid of miracles."
And then, Nabokov writes: "At that instant there was a sudden snap — a thin sound like that of an overstretched rubber band breaking. Sleptsov opened his eyes. The cocoon in the biscuit tin had burst at its tip, and a black, wrinkled creature the size of a mouse was crawling up the wall above the table. It had emerged from the chrysalid because a man overcome with grief had transferred a tin box to his warm room, and the warmth had penetrated its taut leaf-and-silk envelope; it had awaited this moment so long, had collected its strength so tensely, and now, having broken out, it was slowly and miraculously expanding.
"... And then those thick black wings, with a glazy eyespot on each and a purplish bloom dusting their hooked foretips, took a full breath under the impulse of a tender, ravishing, almost human happiness."