The old man looked at him wearily in the half-dark of the stone cell. He had been up since five that morning, and the ache in his left hip had not lessened in the least. But still he did not allow himself to sit to pray. Now it was almost ten and he ached to lie down, to stretch out and let sleep carry him away. Had he battled against such things as this for fifty years with such futility?
‘I am asking if I can go to the island.’
The young man was only a shadow in front of him. He stood and did not move, and did not know what it meant to be sore and old. Silence lay between them and as a paw of wind came and caught the tower so it shuddered, they heard the pattering of snowflakes against the glass. The track would be buried by morning, and the last of the wood was still to be brought in.
Only eight were ever chosen each December, and six of those were there year on year: they did not ask if they might have a place. His hip throbbed so he wanted to weep; a dull, deep drumbeat. The candle fluttered and he found himself nodding, though he did not look at the boy.
‘Why do you want to go?’
He tried to keep the question steady and was not sure he had managed. The boy was seventeen: once he too had been seventeen and sure of nothing but the knowledge the sun would rise the next day. He looked through the gloom to find the boy’s face. If there had been no kindness in his question then may there be some in his eyes.
Just a whisper, and the young head bowed and shuddered. The boy wept. It took the old man by surprise, caught him almost like that breath of wind and knocked him softly sideways. He did not know what to do or say. He waited and heard his own heart. He watched and waited.
‘All right,’ he said in the end, quietly, hearing the strangeness of his own words. ‘You may go.’
The chapel on the island belonged to St Lucy. It had been hers since the days she lived herself (leastways that was what the farrier would have said, had you disturbed him at his labour on a good day and he had the time to answer). The chapel belonged to St Lucy, and the legend was she went there herself, however many hundred years back into the darkness of time. A family lived on the island, survived on what little they grew and on the sweet fish from the lake. The youngest girl fell ill with fever (local people still maintained it was at harvest, for the father was gone to help in the mainland fields, though how anyone knew that was a wonder). But word went out of the girl’s fever, that she was sick unto death and nothing more could be done for her. In those days children were like apples from a tree; carry a bunch in your arms and you could be sure one or more would fall. But word went out of the girl’s illness, and perhaps with the father himself as he went to gather the harvest. For that part of Russia was a land of fields, and whether the seas went dry or the wind stopped blowing, the fields must be delivered of their harvest.
So it was Lucy herself heard of the girl’s dying, and came to the village as night was falling. (The farrier would tell you how many generations ago that was, for his family had been there since Eve put them all out of Eden). But the boatman wouldn’t go near the lake: there was no moon that night and all manner of stories of beasts that lived in the deep. The truth was he probably feared the fever himself, had no wish to bring it back to five sons and a wife.
So she walked. Lucy left the ferryman’s house, went into the moonless night and down to the shore and walked. Even now the farmer will tell you there were three that stood and watched as she started onto the water as if it was no more than a dry path. And they say she walked barefoot, shoes in her hand; that her mouth moved and she prayed as she went. All the way to the other side and the island shore.
She went to the house where the girl lay in the last throes of fever, babbling words of nonsense. And Lucy’s hand smoothed her forehead and she spoke soft words over and over, like the dripping of cool water, till at last the girl was still. But she was not dead, she slept.
The boy had been the third son. He had almost not survived, came into the world like a bundle of lamb that slips into the sleet-white grass with the tiniest cry. Born a month early and it was his sister who watched over him until at last he was stronger and the flags of the daffodils blew triumphant in the spring wind. Only five she was and she watched over him, for their mother could do nothing that first month, so ravaged was she from the long birth. That set a bond between them for ever, a bond that ran deep and strong. He was often ill in those first years. He struggled to breathe, to climb the hill of each new-drawn breath. It was she who sat with him through the long hours of the night, drawing the forefinger of her left hand across his cheek, slow and gentle, whispering the name she’d given him.
She would not let him be scolded. When the birch rod was raised by a mother half-mad with tiredness in a house with too many children, the girl shrieked and implored her to stop. That only maddened the mother the more, and set her against the girl. In summer the two escaped into the hills behind the house like leverets, laughing; the tin pails they carried for berries clanking against their thighs as they ran.
Their mother called them outlaws; she carried the washing out shouting at them still though they were far beyond hearing. They came back home, barefoot and weary, when the moon was orange in the river and the windless skies were all but dark. There was no point raising the birch rod then; she knew it was far too late.
Was she punishing the boy by sending him to the monastery or thanking God for the miracle of his birth? By that time his sister had gone to work as a servant at the big house of the landowners from Petersburg. She did not want to go, but there was no choice, and she sent home one silver coin every second week to her mother, despite all the years of the birch rod. The boy found the world strange without her, and in those first days he struggled to sleep at all. He said nothing aloud; did everything he was asked as always. But her absence was in his face, and nothing his mother said could hide it. When he went to the monastery he knew he was travelling in the opposite direction; he felt his sister growing distant behind him though it was dark and starless and the road twisted many times. It was she he missed, not his mother.
It was when he was out by the well he knew she was ill. The wind rushed through the autumn trees and he thought of them running in the thrill of it as once they’d done, and as he dipped his bucket into the stars on the surface he knew she was ill. Not just that she was ill but that it was something on her right side, and he touched the place with his free hand as he set the pail down with its shining.
He knew he should pray for the world, for its suffering, but he prayed for it somehow through her. When he knelt and words poured through him like a wild stream’s babble it was her face he saw beyond him. He even prayed something of his strength might be given to her, that he might give it back all these years later.
And so he was told he could go to the island. As if by magic, the days froze and the eye of the lake glazed a strange white. He heard the ice crystals in the trees at night, the high song of them playing in the darkness. The sun climbed into the sky but it was a snowball, weak enough to look at full. And there were wolves; somewhere in the hills their voices held and echoed. He thought of them as the living sound of the Northern Lights; he told no-one yet that was what he thought.
She was weakening. She had fallen and was weakening but he was kind to her. Those were the words he woke with, one morning when he rose and went to the window and six slow geese beat a path into the light. It was only six days till St Lucy’s Day, until they went to the island.
And so they walked across the ice. They held their shoes, in memory of St Lucy, and walked in bare feet. At first the pain was almost too much to bear, until he realised that he felt nothing at all. He looked at his feet and thought they were like marble, and remembered the one time he visited the Winter Palace and saw the sculpture of the angel.
The men who walked with him now were old. He felt that as they walked they carried not only their shoes but their stories. They had lived through the story of Russia and grown old, and knew now this was the last time they might visit the chapel. They wore white robes and they were the only things in the night’s darkness, and the only sound that of their feet and their breathing. They did not talk; they looked ahead towards an island they could not see, and that itself was a kind of metaphor. The chapel must be in darkness when they came to it; as though they could not even be sure as they crossed it was there at all. Light and fire were only to be found and made later, once they had reached the other side.
He knew somehow that he loved them even now, those men, although he had been with them only days. He did not understand the meaning of years as they did. The one who fed the birds at dawn, who held fragments of bread in his cupped hand until they came and ate without fear. The one who was all but blind, but who sang in the morning with a voice as sweet as a child’s. The one who did not talk any more, who had gone so far into silence words were not needed now. He had found a place where there was no more fear or anger.
That night the moon did not shine. There were stars, yet not as he had seen them before. Now they were like breath across the sky; a mist far beyond counting. The monks did not look back as they walked; that was also a part of their pilgrimage. And the ice was strange and patterned; he thought of the Northern Lights, and it was as if they had been imprisoned there, a moment of their fire frozen for ever.
It was only when they reached the other side he knew how cold it was.
It was two days later, when they had returned to the monastery, that he woke from a dream and knew he must go. He dressed in the dark, hands trembling, and fled down the stone steps as though the dream had not ended at all. It did not even occur to him to ask if he could leave.
It had snowed in the night and the silence left behind was bigger almost than silence itself. When the spines of dawn came, it was as though a bonfire burned somewhere ahead of him; a conflagration setting fire to the trees. When the sun had all but risen into the woods, its brightness was so great his eyes could not bear it. But he knew he was walking the right way; he knew he must walk into the sun.
He had no sense of time. He had walked countless miles with her all those years of his childhood; they had not known what time meant. For hours now he walked straight on; no path except the one his feet found. But he knew he was right; he knew without a shadow of a doubt there was no other way but this. He came at last to the road; looked left and right and listened. He held his breath and heard the rustling of birds in the trees. Everything was dry; made of tinder dry fragments.
He turned left and knew now he was not far away. And it was only then he seemed to waken and wonder what they would think and where he had gone. Then he saw a house and forgot everything as he began walking again. He could not walk but had to run, so hard his chest seemed burning and about to burst. He staggered on because he knew it was there, that she was there, that he must get there. And a beautiful garden and a long drive and the scent of wood smoke and at last, after however many hours, a doorway and his fist on the hard wood, hammering and hammering and hammering.
She answered, for she was a servant there. And her face smiled, even though she cried.
‘Sasha,’ she said. ‘I knew you would come.’
Copyright: Kenneth Steven 2016