This is one of the first stories I ever wrote, and I still love it. I can’t remember what prompted me to create a story about two monks leaving their monastery and retreating to Moscow as Napoleon’s army advanced. It was only after I had written it that I found out that the invading army had arrived in Russia at the end of June 1812 and arrived in Moscow on 14th September, so the very clear picture I have in my mind of peasants retreating through the snow as their villages burned comes entirely from my imagination. Some things I do remember researching: the Cycle of prayer; the forty-day fast before Christmas; the hole made in the ice by the priests so that they could bless the water. Mostly I think I wanted to write a story about ‘incarnation’ and suggest that a woman who was a ‘follower of the camp’ could bring healing through her flesh.
When our fear finally drove us north, I had no alternative but to take him with me.
“You are like a son to me,” he said.
In quieter times I had led him from the chapel, worried lest he slip and trip on the flagged stones riven by subterranean icy rivers. His blind eyes focused on nothing, and I used to think what a blessing he had been given, a gift. Never to be distracted by the world outside – lost inside your soul – to go deeper inside oneself so that in the sacred place of that inner core something ineffable could emerge.
Sometimes, when the searing cold of those flagged stones splintered inside my limbs, I would shut my eyes and try to find that searching light in the darkness. It always eluded me. For me, faith was purely practical. If I could complete the tasks allotted to me, then God would fulfill his part of the bargain; that was the pledge.
‘Have faith’ he would say to me as I guided him through the narrow, dark doorways towards his cell. ‘Have faith – because one day she will find you.’
‘You live so peacefully with such mystery,’ I would answer.
And I never knew whether he understood that for me there was no mystery; nothing but endless hours of sung words, the Cycle of Prayer, and of course interminable years of digging. Digging the sodden, fruitless earth. Each turn of the spade deep into the clogged ground was for me like each heavy word, the weight of the earth dragging my spine as the weight of each word dragged my soul into salvation. I had all the words and so missed what was beyond words.
So when news came that we must take our few provisions and walk to Moscow, and there was nothing to take because the ground had given nothing, I went searching for him, determined to save something precious. It was as if he was the vessel that held the mystery.
‘Napoleon’s army is advancing” I said when I found him. ‘We have been ordered to take all we can – to leave nothing.’
His shrunken shoulders turned towards me, eyes that were not eyes, heavy with cloud. Hands, small like a child’s, clasping an icon.
‘I will not leave her,’ he muttered. ‘Beloved.’
He lifted the square of wood so that I could see it. The gold paint shimmered, iridescent in the soft winter light. The face of Mary, head and shoulders draped in blue, the veil trimmed with tiny beads. Three stars to mark her virginity caught in a sudden shaft of light from the narrow window of his cell.
I understood and yet did not understand. Perhaps he could feel her beauty. Perhaps his sensitive fingers knew the contours of her body, the arch of her eyebrow, the rim of her gown, the outline of her thin fingers as her hands reached out to beckon the faithful to besotted devotion.
He stumbled and I caught his arm, felt his thinness through the rough fabric of his robe. He thrust the icon further towards my face, as if suddenly aware of his own mortality and his inability to protect this precious thing to which he had given his life.
‘Take it … wrap it … there’s a cloth on the bed.’
He was becoming agitated. I could see the lines of anxiety etched on his brow and could smell the old-man smell, pungent with fear. I was angry. I wanted to throw him and his precious icon on the ground. I wanted to obliterate, to take the only thing that had given him comfort and to grind it to dust under my feet.
His Beloved? I had given twenty years of my life to devotion, but never love. This symbol of God’s grace was for me, just that, a symbol. I had looked and reasoned but never adored. And now this pitiful old man was asking me to save something that was just wood and paint, created long ago in better times, an image that he couldn’t even see.
And there had been better times. Times when we had felt safe and when I was full of hope. For years I had waited, determined to be patient and to keep searching. And there was always the ongoing battle to bring sustenance from the cold earth. In a strange way the digging and the planting had kept me sane when I was beginning to suspect that for me at least, there was to be no transcendent moment that would set my heart aglow, to put a fire in my belly that would sustain me.
It was on Christmas Eve, just as we were ending the forty-day fast, when the first group of refugees arrived at the monastery. They asked for food and told us that soldiers had ordered them north. They were to take all they could carry. When they looked back they could see their hovels burning in the freezing light. The enemy must find nothing. No wood to burn, no grain, no livestock. We had a little dried bread. We gave them water, and on Christmas morning, they shuffled off into the bitter wind, the mystery of the incarnation, a cruel irrelevance.
But I took the icon, and I wrapped it. He heard the sounds of my work and I saw his face gently soften.
We took the path to the lake, the path already trodden to slush. There would be a hole in the ice, made by the priests who went to bless the water, and there we could drink, and take an easier route north across the frozen water.
At times it was all I could do to keep him upright. His body was heavy on my arm and his feet dragged in the mud.
‘Mary, Mother of God, have mercy on us. Mary, Mother of God, have mercy on us, Mary, Mother of God, have mercy on us.’
The prayer whispered again and again into the utter silence of the still, white world.
When we rested as dark descended, on a piece of earth warmed where a doe had recently calved, I knew that he would not live through the night. His body curled, foetal-like, and I wondered about the womb that had given him birth, the mother who had suckled him at her breast, and the hard, unyielding body of the Virgin.
I lay next to him and listened hour after hour to the agony of each breath. And then, sometime before dawn he spoke.
‘Confitemini Domino quoniam bonus.’
‘Trust in the Lord, for he is good.’
From the dawn sky, flakes of snow began to cover us – and I knew he had died. I stood and repeated his last words. Without looking back, I stepped back onto the path.
I crossed the lake. The horizon was utterly flat, and I felt crushed by a sky so immense and oppressive that its weight bowed me to submit to its power. Land that was bare save for the trees that lined the path – bent over from the wind, crabby and stunted like the old man whose body I had left in its tomb in the snow. And all the time I clutched the icon to my chest.
And then, in the evening – a church rises out of the land, huge and black against the palest pink of dusk.
I look across the expanse of snow, and in the doorway is a woman. The light comes from three candles; three stars against her breast, and her head and shoulders are draped in blue cloth. And I know she is flesh – soft and warm, and I see her breath, mist in the cold air, and I see her eyes, clear, like water from a spring when the snow melts.
Somehow, I walk towards her. She leans forward and takes my hand, pulling me into the sacred darkness.
‘I have made a fire in the stove,’ she says
And now I know that death has been very close. She opens my robe and one by one, pulls my fingers away from the piece of wood. My flesh has been ravished and deadened by frost, but she seems quite unconcerned by the rankness of my body. Like a mother she removes my clothes, and then she holds me so that the warmth of her body brings life back to mine.
‘I follow the camp’ she says.
And I am flooded with relief because I know she is not the dream I am afraid of. I look into her face, and I see the pain. I see the pain in her eyes that comes from resignation, from assent, again and again to a giving that again and again has caused her soul to scream.
I had mistaken the three pricks of light at her breast for the Virgin’s stars of purity.
‘My name is Beatrice’ she says.
Her words are numinous. A prayer hanging in the air.
I take the icon, remove the cloth, and place it on the altar.