This girl was unlike any other that came by the prison. How she’d found herself to be in Omsk was a story everyone knew. It seemed a difficult one to believe in theory, but once you caught a glimpse of the woman in the flesh… well. It suddenly became startlingly clear. Usually, with a woman of her kind — slight, quiet, plain — the prisoners would shout to her, reach to grab her if they could manage. Something about this one, however, demanded respect. She did not boast, though she was not fearful of the prisoners. She walked by each morning with her bread for the day, not avoiding the eye of each shackled man, but offering each of them a smile of their own, her pale eyes glittering with the truest form of kindness there was. The prisoners did not make up names for her, they would only address her nobly by “Sofia Semyonovna, our gentle mother, Sofia Semyonovna”. She was a queen. A saint too, apparently.
She would come to write and deliver letters her at the prison come winter. None of the prisoners could afford to pay for any of it, of course, but she would always do it for nothing. The major allowed it, too. He loved her. The prisoners did, too. They would line up before her with startling obedience, as if she’d made them submit to her goodness. She had spoken to perhaps half of them outside of her business, yet they all felt they knew her. One of her favourites was the Muslim boy, who had barely spoken a word of Russian before she came with that God-awful man of hers.
One afternoon, two days after Christmas, she had been stranded at the prison overnight because of the weather, and the major allowed her to go and visit the cellblock, accompanied by two of the guards. It was a surprising gesture: the prison itself was no place for a young lady, but she visited him that often, it was almost as if she lived there.
The first room on the left belonged to a strange group of people, all whom Sofia Semyonovna would always stop to catch up with if she could. There was a Jew, with whom she somewhat surprisingly had a remarkable rapport. They would always talk about her knitting work for the local school — how it was treating her — though she would be far more interested in hearing how his illegal, in-prison vodka trade was coming along. He was delighted to talk about this, of course, and probably could for a lot longer than he did, for he felt guilty in wasting her time with “such selfish dribble.”
There were two Poles, aristocrats, who were a little bitter from a religious perspective, but otherwise formally pleasant. It was with these two that she practiced her French — for they were unable to communicate otherwise — and she always informed them of what was happening in the nearby town, information which they revelled in, mind. There was also a Russian noble of some description, who always seemed to be desperate for her company. She provided him with it, of course, although whenever she did address him (the proper way, it must be said), he always seemed to run out of words to say, then and there. She would smile then and wish him good health, before moving along to the next cell, where the family of Muslims all bunked together. The youngest brother was her favourite, she would often be seen walking to and from the prison with him in the mornings and afternoons in summer, a wide, warm smile enveloping her face.
“Hello!” she’d said to him brightly that night in December. “My, isn’t it good to see you! It’s been weeks, since October if I remember correctly.”
“Sofia Semyonovna, what are you doing here?” he used the informal ‘you’. He had used it by mistake in addressing her when he was in the early stages of learning the language, and he’d never seemed to consider taking a step backwards when he learned to distinguish the two forms. She, in turn, had adopted the informal with him also.
“I got caught in the weather. I’m spending the night in the guardhouse.” she smiled.
The boy coughed. “Well, I do hope they feed you something a little nicer than cabbage soup. Though, the lunch we had on Christmas day was spectacular. I have not eaten like that in my entire life, Sofia Semyonovna, I tell you. Incredible.”
Sonya sighed. “It sounds wonderful, we had quite the lunch at the school as well, the children were just delighted. But my, I would have liked to have been here, I think.”
“No!” the boy said, genuinely shocked. “I could not think of any place or people more vulgar, any more revolting circumstances! No, better the school for certain!”
She smiled. “You shouldn’t say that, these people are not bad… no one is, inherently…” she paused. “…I saw something interesting when I was coming in. Why on earth is there a stage being set up in the main hall?”
The boy drew in a sharp breath, his eyes suddenly glittering. “Oh. That. A group of men from the west barrack are organising some kind of performance. I’m not sure of which play they are doing. They want Alexander Petrovich [the Russian noble from the first cell on the left] to be their Belinsky.”
“Oh! How delightful!” Sonya breathed.
“You should come, when they put it on. I’m sure you would enjoy it a great deal.”
“I’m sure I would, though I’ll only come if there is room for me. I cannot fathom how you will all fit in that little room!
The boy smiled. “There will always be room for you, Sofia Semyonovna.”
She blushed, struck into silence at such a flattery. “I come after, you know that… Your Russian is getting much better, too. Have you been practicing?”
He nodded happily. “I have. People have been helping me.”
“Oh? Who?” she hid her surprise.
“Many people. Alexander Petrovich, some evenings. But mainly your friend. Rodion Romanovich. He’s been giving me writing lessons during meal times. He is a very good teacher.”
This time she did not hide it. “Rodion Romanovich? Has he really?” she said in a squeaky voice, not taking time to plan her words.
“That’s fantastic.” Sonya felt her heart fluttering in bewildered joy. “I’m so glad.”
Raskolnikov was being kept in the barrack on the west side of the courtyard. Sonya knew this, and she purposely went to the east block first, thinking even then that she may be forced in for the night. She visited him often, it was true, but always in the major’s office. A warm, comfortable space where the guards on the door stopped him from being himself. This being said, she was not even sure she knew him. Who was he? The suffocating force of patronising cruelty that sneered at the desperation of her circumstance, her decrepit position? Or was he the desperate one, leaving those twenty roubles, bowing before one such as her, bending to kiss the dusty ground of the Haymarket? Many would say that one as capable of such evil would only use a facade of innocence for the prospect of benefit, but could a devil really be so humble as he? She pondered these questions often, tried so hard to figure him out, and found after a long, sleepless night that it really mattered not. She knew she loved him regardless, and it was only a selfish curiosity that led her into these thoughts.
A dim lamp flickered in the major’s house. Sonya was lying on a couch in the living room, the major’s bed in the adjoining closet. It was pitch black outside, and the wind rattled the windows with violent fury. The couch was as comfortable as her own bed, and one of her own blankets worked well to keep her warm. She lay there for hours, not able to sleep, snow from outside occasionally sleeping through the windows and onto her face, though she was feeling incredibly hot. She tried not to think about Raskolnikov, but his face kept entering her mind. It was always him in Petersburg, though, never here. His full head of hair, frantically dark eyes, cheeks not so gaunt.
Did she miss this? Surely not, he had been so lost. He still was, perhaps, but at least now he was on a well-paved road, though who knew where it would lead? God? Or a dead end? She worried that it depended on him.
The door opened and then slammed with a gust of icy wind. Sonya felt beads of sweat appear on her forehead. She tried reciting a parable to herself to distract from the noises raging around her. She pulled the blanket from her body, breathing hard. “The same day, Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake…” she smiled softly in the darkness. “Such large crowds gathered around him that he got in a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore…” it worked. She imagined a glistening oasis in Judea, surrounded by people, Christ in a rotting, wooden boat, dressed in shabby, yellowing robes. She was on the shore, listening, wondering. She spoke in a soft whisper, incoherent under the howl of the storm, an invisible stream of beautiful words. The storm was loud but she could hear only her own voice, speaking to whom?
“But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear.” at the back of her mind, she noticed the a lamp flicker to life in the corner of the room. It did not matter. “For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it." Sonya felt a hand on her arm, and she screamed.
Somehow, she managed to escape the major’s room. Her scream would have fallen silently on the world. Images flashed before her eyes, images of the darker elements of her past, never truly able to escape her shame. Tears sloshed down her face, freezing on her cheeks. What horror! Ekaterina Ivanovna, she would have fought back, but Sonya could not. No! Her father, she should blame him for her past, but how could she, her own papa? No! Her love was too strong. She wondered about Polya in that moment. ‘Polina Semyonovna, sweet sister, what depths have you been dragged down to? Oh!’
She kept to the sides of the buildings, edging slowly, scared of the wind that threatened to lift her off her feet. She was no less slight than she had been in Petersburg, still so light and frail. She had her blanket wrapped around herself, though icicles clung to the hem and her wrists were exposed to the stabbing wind. “When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart.” she said, not shivering in the slightest. She was still hot, moisture collecting at her hairline. She had no shawl, not hat, nothing that was important enough to warrant its own thought at the time. “This is the seed sown along the path…”
When she made it to the door, she pushed it open with ease. There was no guard outside. Up until this point she had not even been sure she would have been able to get inside. In the back of her mind she realised the strongest man could not make it a mile in this weather. She could barely make it across the courtyard.
The opening of the door woke the barrack up immediately; most of them were not asleep as it was. The west barrack was larger than the east; only the Special Class slept on the other side of the prison. It was also a lot worse for wear here. There were no cells, only an aisle separating two rows of nasty straw beds, most of which had no covering to speak of. Snow fell through the roof onto the clogged earth that served as a floor. A lamp flickered pitifully on each wall. Sonya looked at these gaunt shaven men, over a hundred of them and each with a terrible kind of desperation etched onto their face like a crude painting. Somehow, she felt safer here than in the major’s living room. A voice spoke up. “Sofia Semyonovna?”
She realised how she must look, in the middle of the night, teary-eyed, dress covered with ice. She spotted Raskolnikov, sitting up in his bed, knees to chest. He was situated down the darkest end of the barrack, underneath a large hole in the roof. She laughed, filled with a sudden joy. “Yes, Mister Alexeyev!” she smiled with radiance. “How do you do?”
Alexeyev was stunned. “Fine, ma’am. Simply fine!”
“Good. And hello to you too, Ponimanikov… and Razhvinsky! Why, it’s been a while, hasn’t it?”
“Too long, Sofia Semyonovna.”
She seemed to have an effect on all of them… except Raskolnikov. Raskolnikov, how… overwhelming… it was for her to see him at this moment. No guards in sight, no lower place to sink, nothing to prevent an honesty of his soul from showing itself to her. The smile faded from her face as she drew closer to him. “The seed falling on rocky ground is the one who hears the word, and at once receives it with joy…” she murmured to herself. “But since they have no root, they only last a short time.”
He saw her and looked at her. She looked back. How striking his face was without any hair. And the shame in his eyes! Why must he feel ashamed in front of her?
“Don’t know why she’s so fond of him.” someone said. “He’s a damn atheist.”
“Shut it, would you?” said another. “Isn’t any of your business who she’s fond of, is it?”
“Eh… well. I’m only saying it like it is. What’s that you said again? A gentry with an axe! Ha!”
Sonya and Raskolnikov both ignored this calmly. She, like all the times they’d met since coming here, held her trembling hand out to him. He looked at it for a moment with that same ashamed sneer, and did not grab her hand but her wrist, guiding her down towards him. She was easy to pull, weighed not a thing. Her breathing came out in hazy gasps, they did not sound at all well. “Ro… dion… Romanovich…?”
“What… are you doing here?”
She could take it no longer, and sunk to her knees. “The major…” she gasped, leaning close to his face so no one else could hear. “Snowed in overnight… stayed in his rooms…” she suddenly felt silly for coming, even more idiotic in trying to explain it to him. She didn't quite know herself why she had come. It was not like she had never been in that position before. She could easily have stayed.
Some incredible change came over Raskolnikov’s face. He seemed for a moment to be ashamed of his own shame, before smiling bitterly, his lips twitching in convulsive spasms. “The major, you say?” he said loudly, so the entire barrack could quite easily hear. Let it be noted there was not a sound otherwise previously; all the convicts were attempting to listen.
There was a pause, before:
“That scoundrel, you say?”
“Lord! What a world…!”
“No good, no good! That’s what he is... Straight to hell.”
Sonya spared a moment to wonder how these men would react if they were aware of the truth of her past. Raskolnikov could very well be — from the wry, superior curl of his lip — thinking along quite the same lines. She bashfully ignored all that was being said in this uproar of noise. Sonya had no desire to be loved by any, though this precisely was what made her so lovable. Raskolnikov seemed to suddenly realise this, and took her hands in both of his jerkily, as if not in control of his own actions.
“Your hands are icy, Sonya.” he said gravely.
She looked away from him. “I do not feel cold at all.”
She snapped her eyes back to his. “I wanted to see you!” she cried in a sudden frenzy. “I wanted to see you but I didn’t so I hid in the Special Class block because I was scared! Look at you! This is you! On the path… on the path! You know, I was saying the parable of the Sower to myself just now, before the major came into my room? I was! I was! And then I was saying it as I crossed the courtyard to your barrack! Why did I come here? I don’t know! Rodya, dear Rodion Romanych… Saint!… why are you so ashamed?” she broke down in tears, covering her face as her entire body heaved and shook.
When she looked back at him, he was hauntingly still. Pale. “Saint?” he said smoothly. “You think of me… What?” he smiled, pain etched into the lines in his face. “Tell me, Sonya. It has been plaguing me since the beginning. Was my decision… just another choice, the same as all other choices swimming around in the minds of man?” he blinked. “Sonya? Was it? Or am I a scoundrel?” his voice was slow and patient, though edged with some kind of desperate fear that chilled her to the very last. She had never heard him… scared. Of anything.
None of the other convicts were listening, not even the ones closest to Raskolnikov’s own bed. They were so immersed in their hatred that they became blind to anything happening outside the reinforcement of their own opinion from others. She needn’t even weigh his question out to herself. To her it had been startlingly obvious from the first, and he knew it himself.
“You killed!” her exact words from that dusty, stifling day he confessed to her. Now instead there raged a howling snowstorm, though it did not even slightly alter her certainty. She looked at his sad, almost betrayed face, and saw something hauntingly, unspeakably beautiful. “When trouble or persecution comes because of the word… they quickly fall away…”
His face contorted, startled. “What did you say?”
Tears falling down her cheeks (in sadness or in love? She could not tell), she took his face in her hands, kneeling on his bed. How smooth his face was. Youthful skin, large eyes, he was just like a child. “The seed falling among the thorns is the one who hears the word…” she was swimming in some great understanding, some enlightenment. “But the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful.” He grimaced.
“But the seed falling on good soil is the one who hears the word… and understands it.” she continued, voice growing to a climactic, uncontrolled hysteria. She smiled wildly. “Your choice… Rodya… your choice was a choice. A choice! The places our minds can lead us when they decide what is right and wrong… Oh!” she flung her arms around him, resting her head on his shoulder. This the convicts noticed. Many of them made noises of surprise. Raskolnikov — usually so hostile — sat glassy-eyed and still, as if struck by a fierce silver of lightning. She could feel his body rise and fall, breathing heavily.
Sonya was still whispering into his ear. “A mere choice, but down the wrong path! Now… you’re retracing your steps… here… Siberia… you have had time to think, relive it in your mind so many times over… it has probably distorted by now… has it? Or is it still clear?”
Raskolnikov gave a shaky sigh, and shook his head, hanging it low. Sonya wondered if he was crying. He croaked a single word, leaving so much unsaid: “Clear.”
“Oh…” she pulled out of the embrace. He was not crying, only trembling, his eyes softer than she’d ever seen them. A strange warmth spread throughout her chest — a delirious kind — and without properly thinking she kissed him on the mouth. He did not react, his shaking remained constant, his lips icy cold, lightly closed. She wondered at herself halfway through the gesture, though she held, determined, for five seconds before pulling away. The wind howled, the convicts stared, and Sonya felt a pair of mysterious eyes on her, watching her, for the first time in her life, with fatherly pride. ‘Retrace your steps’, she thought to herself, for she was strangely certain of Raskolnikov’s thought processes as that moment. ‘And when you reach that fork in the road, take the other path, I know you understand my word…’
Lent. Sonya was bedridden for a week, with a strange fever that seemed to have come from nowhere. The doctors told her it was not serious, that it was due to some kind of exposure, and that they had sent a message to “that friend of yours” in the prison. On the first day she was able to get up and get some overdue mending done, she received a letter back from the prison. One of the guards had actually knocked on her door himself, instead of sending one of the prisoners as a messenger.
“You are the talk of the barracks, miss.” He’d said. “Came to give this to you myself. If I’d sent someone they would have ripped open the letter for themselves and taken a good old look. Can’t have that… they’re curious, you see. Ever since you were snowed in that night and stayed at the major’s…”
Sonya’s heart lurched uncomfortably. “Oh. Who is the letter from?”
The guard tilted his head to the side. “Your beau. Now you mention it, he’s been a lot less of a dismal pain in the neck ever since that night… minding my language, miss, apologies.”
Sonya laughed, and invited the guard inside. “No need to worry.” she said. “I’ve visited the prisoners many times. It was a shame I could not make it to the performance, though, I heard it was a great success.”
“That it was, miss, that it was. Never seen all of them so happy at one time. ‘Philatka and Miroshka’, they did, as well as some nonsense comedy called ‘Kedril’ that I’d never heard of before. It was wonderful.”
Sonya poured two glasses of tea. “I’m certain it was.” she smiled.
She waited for the guard to leave before she opened the letter from Raskolnikov. She had not spoken to him — neither directly nor through writing — since that night. She read the letter with trembling, half-healthy hands. It was, to her utter alarm, of a desperate, emotionally erratic tone she would not have expected from a letter written by him, as he usually wrote with such style and formality she often needed the help of the school master in deciphering certain phrases. He “begged to know she was healthy” (those were his exact words!), and spoke at length of how it “hurt” for him to be unable to reach her, especially at such a time of year. “If I could give up my shackles, which have helped me so eternally through these past years, just to be there… to help if you needed it!”
Sonya could not remember much more of the letter, as the language was so reckless and jumbled it all swarmed into a mesmerising hive of warmth in her head. She did however keep the letter with her to read one day, years from that moment. She did not know where she would be when she was old, but, if she were to become a bad person, take a horned fork in the road, the letter would remind her of the moment she was able to break free from her past and provide this poor, poor man with true happiness and life.