§11 The Priest with the Golden Hair
In the year that Vasilisa Petrovna turned thirteen, the Metropolitan Aleksei made his plans for the accession of Prince Dmitrii Ivanovich. For seven years the Metropolitan had held the regency of Moscow; he schemed and skirmished, made alliances and broke them, called men to battle and sent them home again. But when Dmitrii came to manhood, Aleksei, seeing him bold and keen and steady in judgment said, “well, a good colt must not be left in pasture,” and began making plans for a coronation. The robes were stitched, the furs and jewels bought, the messengers sent to Sarai to beg the khan’s indulgence.
And Aleksei began to look quietly about him for those who might be in a position to oppose the prince’s succession. It was then that he learned of a priest named Father Konstantin Nikonovich.
Konstantin was quite a young man, true, but the fortunate (or unfortunate) possessor of a terrible beauty: old-gold hair and eyes like blue water. He was renowned throughout Muscovy for his piety, and despite his youth he had traveled far—south even to Tsargrad and west to Hellas. He read Greek, and could argue obscure points of theology. Moreover he chanted with a voice like an angel, so that the people wept to hear him and lifted up their eyes to God.
But most of all, Konstantin Nikonovich was a painter of icons. Such icons, said the people, such as had never been seen in Muscovy: such icons as must have come from the finger of God to bless the wicked world. Already his icons were copied throughout the monasteries of northern Rus’, and Aleksei’s spies brought him tales of rapturous, rioting crowds, and women weeping when they kissed the painted faces.
These rumors troubled the Metropolitan. “Well, and I will rid Moscow of this golden-haired priest,” he said to himself. “His voice, should he choose, could turn the people against the prince.”
And he fell to considering this means or that.
While he deliberated, a messenger came from the house of Pyotr Vladimirovich.
The metropolitan sent for the man at once. The messenger arrived in due course, still in his dust and weary, awed by his glittering surroundings. But he stood steadily enough and said, “Father, bless,” with only a little stammer.
“God be with you,” said Aleksei, sketching the sign of the cross. “Tell me what brings you so far, my son.”
“The priest has died,” explained the messenger, gulping. He had expected to explain his errand to a much less exalted personage. “Good, fat Father Semyon has gone to God, and we are adrift, says the mistress. She begs you send us another, to hold us fast in the wilderness.”
“Well,” said the Metropolitan immediately. “Give thanks,, for your salvation is just at hand.”
And, in due time, Metropolitan Aleksei sent for Konstantin Nikonovich.
The young man came into the prelate’s presence, tall and pale and burning. His robe of dark stuff set off the beauty of hair and eyes and the clean planes of his face.
“Father Konstantin,” said Aleksei. “You are called to a task by God.”
Father Konstantin said nothing.
“A woman,” the Metropolitan continued, “the Grand Prince’s own sister, has sent a messenger begging our help. Her village flock is without a shepherd.”
The young man’s face did not change.
“You are the very man to go and minister to the lady and her family.” Aleksei finished, smiling with an air of studied benevolence.
“Batyushka,” said Father Konstantin. His voice was deep and startling, so that the servant at Aleksei’s elbow squeaked. The Metropolitan narrowed his eyes. “I am honored. But already I have my work amongst the people of Moscow. And—my icons, that I have painted for the glory of God, they are here.”
“There are many of us to see to the people of Moscow,” replied the Metropolitan. The young priest’s voice was soothing and unnerving at the same time, and Aleksei watched him warily. “And no-one at all for those poor lost souls in the wilderness. No, no it really must be you. You will leave in three weeks.” .
Pyotr Vladimirovich is a sensible man, thought Aleksei. Three seasons in the north will either kill this upstart, or at least fade that oh-so-dangerous loveliness. Better than killing him now, so that the people take his flesh for relics and make him a martyr.
Father Konstantin opened his mouth. But he caught the Metropolitan’s eye, which was hard as flint. The guards waited at every hand, and more in the anteroom, with long scarlet pikes. Konstantin bit back whatever he had wanted to say.
“I am sure,” said Aleksei softly, “That you have much to do before your departure. God be with you, my son.”
Konstantin, white-faced and biting his red lip, bent his head stiffly and turned on his heel. His heavy robe rippled and snapped behind him when he left the room.
“Good riddance,” muttered Aleksei, though he was uneasy still. He dashed kvas into a cup and tossed it cold down his throat.
At high summer, the roads were grass-grown and dry. The mild sun loved the sweet-smelling earth, and soft rains scattered flowers in the forest. But Father Konstantin saw none of it; he rode beside Opraska’s messenger in a white-lipped rage. His fingers ached for his brushes, for his pigments and wood panels, for his cool, quiet cell. Most of all he ached for the people, for their love and hunger and half-frightened rapture, for the way their hands stretched out to his. Devils take the fat Metropolitan. And now he was exiled, for no other reason than that people preferred him.
Well. He’d find some village boy, train him, and return to Moscow. Or perhaps go further south, to Kiev, or west to Novgorod. The world was wide, and Konstantin Nikonovich would not be left to rot on some farm in the woods.
Konstantin spent a week fuming. and then natural curiosity took over. The trees grew steadily larger as they rode deeper into the wild lands: oaks of giant girth and pines tall as the domes of churches. The bright meadows grew sparser as the forest drew in on either side; the light was green and grey and purple, and the shadows lay thick as velvet.
“What is it like, the land of Pyotr Vladimirovich?” Konstantin asked his companion one morning. The messenger started. They been riding a week, and the handsome priest had hardly opened his lips, except to eat his meals.
“Very beautiful, Batyushka,” the man replied respectfully. “Trees fine as cathedrals, and bright streams on all sides. Flowers in summer, fruit in autumn. Cold in winter though.”
“And your master and mistress?” asked Konstantin, curious despite himself.
“A good man is Pyotr Vladimirovich,” said the man, warmth creeping into his voice. “Hard sometimes, but fair, and his folk never go wanting.”
“And your mistress?”
“Oh, a good woman; a good woman. Not like the mistress that was, but a good woman all the same. I know no harm of her.” He shot Konstantin a furtive glance as he spoke, and Father Konstantin wondered what it was that the messenger had not said.
The day the priest arrived, Vasya was sitting in a tree talking to a rusalka. Once Vasya had found such conversations disconcerting, but now she had gotten used to the woman’s green-skinned nakedness and the constant drip of water from her pale, weedy hair. The sprite was sitting on a thick limb with catlike nonchalance, steadily combing her long tresses. Her comb was the rusalka’s greatest treasure, for if her hair dried, she would die, but the comb could conjure water anywhere. When she looked closely, Vasya could see the water flowing from the comb’s teeth. The rusalka had an appetite for flesh; she would snatch fawns drinking in her lake at dawn, and sometimes the young men who swam there at midsummer. But she liked Vasilisa.
It was late afternoon, and the light of the long northern days shone down on the two, bringing out the radiance in Vasya’s hair, and fading the rusalka to a greenish, woman-shaped ghost. The water-spirit was old as the lake itself, and sometimes she looked wonderingly on Vasya: the brash child of a newer world.
They had become friends under strange circumstances. The rusalka had stolen a village boy. Vasya, seeing him vanish and the flash of green fingers, had dived in after. Child though she was, she blazed with the strength of her own mortality and was a match for any rusalka. She seized the peasant and dragged him into daylight. They made it to shore unmolested, but that evening, Vasya returned to the lake and sat down on the verge, toes in the water.
“Did you wish to eat him?” she asked conversationally. “Can you not find other meat?”
There was a small leaf-filled silence.
“No,” said a rippling voice. The girl had leapt to her feet, eyes flicking through the foliage. It was luck more than anything that her glance lit on the sinuous outlines of a naked woman. The rusalka crouched on a limb, a glimmering white thing clutched in one hand.
“Not meat,” the creature said with a shudder, hair scudding like wavelets over her skin. “Fear— and desire—not that you know anything of either. It flavors the water and nourishes me. Dying, they know me for who I am. Otherwise I’d be no more than lake and tree and waterweed.”
“But you kill them!” said Vasya.
“I will not let you slay my people.”
“Then I will disappear,” replied the rusalka, without inflection.
Vasya thought for a moment. “I know you’re here. I can see you. I am not dying, and I am not afraid—but—I can see you. I could be your friend. Is that—is that enough?”
The rusalka was looking at her curiously. “Perhaps.”
And true to her word, Vasya would come looking for the water-spirit, and in spring she threw flowers into the lake, and the rusalka did not die.
In return, the rusalka taught Vasya to swim as very few could, and to climb trees like a cat, and so it was that the two found themselves together, lounging on a limb overlooking the road, as Father Konstantin approached Lesnaya Zemlya.
The rusalka saw the priest first. Her eyes gleamed. “Here comes one who would be good eating.”
Vasya peered down the road and saw a man with dusty golden hair and the dark robes of a priest. “Why?”
“He is full of desire. Desire and fear. He does not know what he desires, and he does not admit his fear. But he feels both, strong enough to strangle.” The man was coming closer. It was indeed a hungry face. High, protruding cheekbones cast grey shadows over his hollow cheeks; he had deep-set blue eyes, and soft, full lips, though set sternly as though to hide the softness. One of her father’s men rode beside him, and both horses were dusty and tired.
Vasya’s face lit. “I’m going home,” she said. “If he is come from Moscow he will have news of my brother and sister.”
The rusalka was not looking at her, but down the path the man had taken, a hungry light in her eyes.
“You promised you wouldn’t,” said Vasya sharply.
The rusalka smiled, sharp teeth gleaming between greenish lips. “Perhaps he desires death,” she said. “If so—I can help him.”
The dvor before the house churned like an ant-pile, washed in gold by the afternoon light. A man was unsaddling the weary horses, but the priest was nowhere to be seen. Vasya ran for the kitchen-door. Dunya met her at the threshold, and hissed at the twigs in her hair and the stains on her cut-down dress. “Vasya where—?” she said, then, “Never mind. Come on, hurry.” She hustled the girl off to have her hair combed, and her dirty clothes exchanged for a blouse and embroidered sarafan.
Flushed and smarting, but more or less presentable, Vasya emerged from the room she shared with Irina. Alyosha was waiting for her. He grinned. “Maybe they will manage to marry you off after all, Vasochka.”
“Opraska Ivanovna says not,” Vasya replied composedly. “Too tall, skinny as weasel, feet and face like a frog.” She clasped her hands and raised her eyes. “Alas, only princes in fairy-tale take frog-wives. And they can do magic and become beautiful on command. I fear I will have no prince, Lyoshka.”
Alyosha snorted. “I’d pity the prince. But do not take Opraska Ivanovna to heart; she does not want you to be beautiful.”
Vasya said nothing, and a quick shadow darkened her face. “Well so there is a new priest,” Alyosha added hastily. “Curious are you, little sister?”
The two slipped outside, and circled the house.
The look she gave him was limpid as a child’s. “Aren’t you?” she said “He is come from Moscow; perhaps he will have news.”
The priest and her father sat together on the cool summer grass, drinking kvas. Pyotr turned when he heard his children approach, and his eyes narrowed when he saw his second daughter.
She is nearly a woman, he thought. It is too long since I looked at her truly. She is so like and so unlike her mother.
In truth, Vasya was yet ugly and awkward, but she had begun growing into her face. The bones were still rough-hewn and overlarge, her mouth still too wide and full-lipped for the rest of her. But she was compelling: the moods passed like clouds over the clear green water of her gaze, and her something about her movements, the line of her neck and braided hair, caught the eye and held it. When the light struck her black hair it did not gleam bronze as Marina’s had, but dark red, like garnets had caught in the silky strands.
Father Konstantin was regarding Vasya with raised eyebrows and a slight frown. And no wonder, Pyotr thought. There was something feral about her, for all her neat gown and properly braided hair. She looked like a wild thing new-caught and groomed into submission.
“My son,” Pyotr said hastily. “Aleksei Petrovich. And this is my daughter, Vasilisa Petrovna.” Alyosha bowed, both to the priest and his father. Vasya was watching at Konstantin with transparent eagerness. Alyosha elbowed her, hard.
“Oh!” said Vasya. “You are welcome here, Batyushka.” And then she added, all in a rush. “Have you news of our brother and sister? My brother rode away seven years ago to take his vows at the Trinity Lavra. And my sister is the Princess of Serpukhov. Tell me you have seen them.”
Her mother should take her in hand, Konstantin thought darkly. The girl stared him brazenly in the face with fey green eyes.
“This is not the time, Vasya,” said Pyotr.
Konstantin was spared a reply. There came a rustle of feet in the summer grass. Opraska Ivanovna swept breathlessly into view, dressed in her finest. Her tiny daughter Irina followed her, spotless as always and pretty as a doll. Opraska bowed. Irina stood and sucked her finger and stared round-eyed at the newcomer. “Batyushka,” said Opraska. “You are most welcome.”
The priest nodded back. At least these two were proper women. The mother had a scarf wrapped round her hair, and the little girl was neat and small and reverent. But, despite himself, Konstantin’s glance slid sideways and caught the other daughter’s interested stare.
“Colors?” said Pyotr, frowning.
“Colors, Pyotr Vladimirovich,” said Father Konstantin, trying not to betray his eagerness.
Pyotr was not sure he’d heard the priest aright. Dinner in the summer kitchen was a raucous affair. The forest was kind, in the golden months, and the kitchen garden overflowed. Dunya outdid herself with delicate stews. “—And then we ran like hares—,” said Alyosha from the other side of the hearth. Beside him, Vasya blushed and covered her face. The kitchen rang with laughter.
“Dyes, you mean?” said Pyotr to the priest, his face clearing. “Well you need have no fear on that score; the women will dye whatever you like.” He grinned, feeling benevolent. Pyotr was content with life. His crops grew tall and green beneath a clear, fair sun. His wife wept and shrieked and hid less since this fair-haired priest had come.
“We can,” Opraska interjected breathlessly. She was neglecting her stew. “Anything you like. Are you still hungry, Batyushka?”
“Colors,” said Konstantin. “Not for dyes. I wish to make paints.”
Pyotr was offended. The house was painted under the eaves, scarlet and blue. But the paintwork was bright and well-kept, and if this man thought he needed to meddle—.
Konstantin pointed to the icon-corner, in the corner across from the door. “For the painting of icons,” he said very distinctly. “For the glory of God. I know what I need. But I do not know where to find it, here in your forest.”
For the painting of icons. Pyotr eyed Konstantin with renewed respect.
“Like ours?” he said. He squinted at the smoke-dimmed, indifferently painted Virgin in her corner, with the candle-stub set before her. He had brought the family icons from Moscow, but he’d never seen an icon-painter. Monks painted icons.
Konstantin opened his mouth, closed it, and smoothed his features, and said. “Yes. A—little like them. But I must have paints. Colors. Some I brought with me, but—.”
Icons were holy. Men would honor his house when they knew he had a painter of icons. “Of course, Batyushka,” said Pyotr. “Icons—the painting of icons—well, we’ll get you your paints.” Pyotr raised his voice. “Vasya!”
On the other side of the hearth, Alyosha said something and laughed. Vasya was laughing too. The sunlight shone through her hair, and lit the freckles adorning the bridge of her nose.
Gawky, Konstantin thought. Clumsy, half-grown. But half the house watches to see what she will do next. “Vasya!” Pyotr called again, more sharply.
She left off whispering, and came towards them. She wore a green dress. Her hair had loosened at the temples and curled a little about her brows, beneath her red and yellow kerchief. She is ugly, thought Konstantin, and wondered at himself. What was it to him if a girl was ugly?
“Father?” said Vasya.
“Father Konstantin wishes to go into the wood,” said Pyotr. “He is looking for colors. You will go with him. You will show him where the dye-plants grow.”
The look she threw the priest was not the simper or the shy glance of a maiden; it was transparent as sunlight, bright and curious. “Yes, Father,” she said. And, to Konstantin: “At dawn tomorrow, I think, Batyushka. It is best to harvest before full light.”
Opraksa took the moment to ladle more stew into Konstantin’s bowl. “By your leave—,” she said.
He did not take his eyes off Vasya. Why not some man of the village? Why the green-eyed witch? Abruptly he realized he was glaring. The brightness had faded from the girl’s face. Konstantin recalled himself. “My thanks, devushka.” He sketched the sign of the cross in the air between them. Vasya smiled suddenly. “Tomorrow then,” she said
“Run along, Vasya,” said Opraska, a little shrill. “The Father can have no more need of you.”
There was a mist on the ground the next morning. The light of the rising sun turned it to fire and smoke, striped with the shadows of trees. The girl greeted him with a wary, glowing face. She was like a spirit in the haze.
The forest of Lesnaya Zemlya was not like the forest around Moscow. It was wilder and crueler and fairer. The vast trees whispered together overhead, and all around Konstantin seemed to feel eyes. Eyes—nonsense.
“I know where the wild mint grows,” said Vasya, as they followed a thin dirt track. The trees made a cathedral-arch above their heads. The girl’s bare feet were delicate in the dust. She had a skin bag slung across her back. “And there will be elderberries if we are fortunate, and blackberries. Alder for yellow. But that is not enough for the face of a saint. Yet you will paint us icons, Batyushka?”
“I have the red earth, the powdered stones, the black metal. I even have the lapis-dust, to make the Virgin’s veil. But I have no green or yellow or violet.” said Konstantin. Belatedly he heard the eagerness in his own voice.
“Those we can find,” said Vasya. She skipped like a child. “I have never seen an icon painted. Neither has anyone else. We will all come and beg you for prayers, that we might stare as you work.”
He had known folk to do just that. In Moscow, they thronged about his icons—.
“You are human after all,” said Vasya, watching the thoughts cross his face. “I wondered. You are like an icon yourself, sometimes.”
He did not know what she’d seen on his face and was angry at himself. “You wonder too much, Vasilisa Petrovna. Better to stay quiet at home with your little sister.”
“You are not the first to tell me that,” said Vasya without rancor. “But if I did, who would go with you at dawn to find bits of leaves? Here—.”
They stopped for birch, and again for wild mustard. The girl was deft with her small knife. The sun rose higher, burning away the mist.
“I asked you a question yesterday when I should not,” said Vasya, when the lacy mustard-greens were tucked in her bag. “But I will ask again today and you will please forgive a girl’s eagerness, Batyushka. I love my brother and my sister. It is long since we have had news of either. My brother is called Brother Aleksandr now.”
“I know of him,” said Konstantin, after a brief hesitation. “He came to Moscow for the coronation of Dmitrii Ivanovich. It is said—it is said he has gained a certain renown for his ministry in the villages.” The girl had fastened her great eyes to his face. Konstantin began to feel uncomfortable.
“And my sister?” said Vasya.
“The Prince of Serpukhov came to Moscow with the prince, a few days before I rode away. I have heard—I have heard that his wife is honored, for her piety and for her strong children.”
Vasya spun around with a little whoop of satisfaction. “I wory for them,” she said. “Father does too, though he pretends not. I will tell Dunya. Thank you, Batyushka.” And she turned on him a face all lit from within, so that he was startled and unwillingly fascinated. His expression grew colder. There was a small silence. The path widened a little and they walked abreast.
“My father said you have been to the ends of the earth,” said Vasya. “To Tsargrad, and the palace of a thousand kings. To the Church of Holy Wisdom.”
“Yes,” said Konstantin.
“Will you tell me of it?” she said. “Alyosha says that at dusk the angels sing. And that the Tsar rules all men of God, as though he were God himself. That he has roomfuls of gems and a thousand servants.”
Her question took him aback. “Not angels,” Konstantin said slowly. “Men only, but men with voices that would not shame angels. At nightfall they light a hundred thousand candles, and everywhere there is gold and music—.”
He stopped abruptly.
“It must have been like heaven,” Vasya said.
“Yes,” said Konstantin.. Memory had him by the throat: gold and silver, music, learned men and freedom. The forest seemed to choke him. “It is not a fit subject for girls,” he added.
Vasya lifted one black brow. They came upon a blackberry bush. Vasya plucked a handful. “You did not want to come here, did you?” she said, around the blackberries. “We have no music or lights, and precious few people. Can you not go away again?”
“I go where God sends me,” Konstantin said, coldly. “If my work is here, then I will stay here.”
“And what is your work, Batyushka?” said Vasya. She had stopped eating blackberries. For an instant, her glance darted to the trees overhead.
Konstantin followed her eyes, but there was nothing there. An odd feeling crept up his spine. “To save souls,” he said. He could count the freckles on her nose. If ever a girl needed saving, it was this one. The blackberries had stained her lips and her hands.
Vasya half-smiled. “Are you going to save us then?”
“If God gives me strength, I will save you.”
“I am only a poor girl,” said Vasya. She reached again into the blackberry bush, wary of thorns. “I have never seen Tsargrad, or angels, or heard the voice of God. But—I think you should be careful, Batyushka, that God does not speak in the voice of your own wishing. We have never needed saving before.”
Konstantin stared at her. She only smiled at him, more child than woman, tall and thin and stained with blackberry-juice. “Hurry,” she said. “It will be full light soon.”
That night, Father Konstantin lay on his narrow cot and shivered and could not sleep. In the north, the wind had teeth that bit after sunset, even in summer.
He had placed his icons, as was right, in the corner opposite the door. The Mother of God hung in the central place, with the Trinity just below. At nightfally, the lady of the house, shy and officious, had given him a fat beeswax candle to set before the icons. Konstantin lit the candle at dusk and enjoyed the golden light. But in the moonlight, the little candle cast sinister shadows over the Virgin’s face, and set strange figures dancing amongst the three parts of the Almighty. There was something hostile about the nighttime house. Almost, it seemed to breathe—.
What foolishness, thought Konstantin.Annoyed with himself, he rose, intending to blow out the candle. But as he crossed the room, he heard the distinct click of a door shutting. Without thinking, he veered to the window.
A woman darted across the space before the house, heavy-footed and muffled in a heavy shawl. Plump she looked, and shapeless under the wrapper. Father Konstantin could not tell who she might be. The figure came to the church door and paused. She set a hand on the bronze ring, dragged the door open, and disappeared inside.
Konstantin stared at the place where she’d vanished. Of course there was nothing to prevent someone going to pray in the dead of night, but the house had its own icons. One might easily pray before them without braving the dark and the damp night air. And there had been something furtive—almost guilty—in the woman’s manner—.
Growing more curious and irritated—and wakeful—by the moment, Konstantin turned from the window and drew on his dark robe. His room had its own outer door. He slid noiselessly through, not bothering with shoes, and made his way across the grass to the church.
Opraska Ivanovna knelt in the dark before the icon-screen and tried to think of nothing. The scent of dust and paint, beeswax and old wood wrapped around her like a balm, while the sweat of yet another nightmare dried in the cool air. She had been walking in the midnight woods this time, black shadows on all sides. Strange voices had risen around her.
“Mistress,” they cried. “Mistress, please. See us. Know us, lest your hearth go undefended. Please, Mistress.” But she would not look. She walked on and on, while the voices tore at her. At last, desperate, she began to run, hurting her feet on rocks and roots. A great cry of lamentation rose up. Suddenly her path ended. She ran on into nothingness and fell back into her skin, gasping and dripping sweat.
A dream, nothing more. But her face and feet stung, and even awake Opraska could hear those voices—. At last she bolted for the church and huddled at the foot of the icon-screen. She could stay in the church and creep back at first light. She had done it before. But though her husband was a tolerant man, all-night disappearances were awkward to explain.
The soft creak of hinges slipped thief-like to her ears. Opraska lurched upright and spun around. A black-robed figure, silhouetted by the risen moon, passed softly through the doorway and came toward her. Opraska was too frightened to move. She stood frozen until the shadow came close enough for her to catch the gleam of old-gold hair.
“Opraska Ivanovna,” Konstantin said. “Is all well with you?”
She gaped at the priest.
No one: no priest, husband, parent, or child had ever asked such a question. ‘What are you doing?’ they had asked, and ‘What is wrong with you?’ but never—. The moonlight played over the hollows of his face.
Opraska stuttered into speech: “I—of course Batyushka I am well, I just—Forgive me—Forgive me, I—.” The sob in her throat choked her. Shaking, unable to meet his eyes, she turned away, crossed herself, and knelt again before the icon-screen. Father Konstantin stood over her for a moment, wordless, then turned, very precise, to cross himself and kneel at the other end of the iconostasis, before the tranquil face of the Mother of God. His voice as he prayed came faintly to Opraska’s ears: a slow, resonant murmur, though she could not catch the words. At last whine of her breathing quieted.
She kissed the icon of Christ, and slanted a glance at Father Konstantin. He was contemplating the dim images before him, hands clasped. His voice when it came was deep and quiet and unexpected.
“Tell me,” he said, “what brings you to seek solace at such an hour.”
“They have not told you that I am mad?” Opraska replied bitterly, surprising herself.
“No,” the priest said. “Are you?”
Her chin dipped in the barest fraction of a nod.
Her eyes flew up to meet his. “Why am I mad?” Her voice came out a hoarse whisper.
“No,” Konstantin answered patiently. “Why do you believe that you are?”
“I see—things. Demons, devils. Everywhere. All the time.” She felt as though she stood beyond herself. Something had taken control of her tongue and was shaping her answers. She’d never told anyone. Half the time she refused to admit it to herself, even when she muttered at corners, and the women whispered behind their hands. Even kind, drunk, clumsy Father Semyon, who had prayed with her more times than she could count had never wrung this confession from her.
“But why should that make you mad? The Church teaches that demons walk among us. Do you deny the teachings of the Church?”
“I—no! But—,” Opraska felt hot and cold at once. She wanted to look into his face again but did not dare. She looked at the floor instead and saw the faint shadow of a foot, incongruously bare beneath the heavy robe. At last she managed a whisper:
“But they aren’t—can’t—be real. No one else sees—. I am mad; I know I am mad.” She trailed off, then added slowly: “Except sometimes I think—my stepdaughter, Vasilisa. But she’s only a child who hears too many stories.”
Father Konstantin’s gaze sharpened.
“She speaks of it, does she?”
“Not—not recently. But when she was a little girl sometimes I thought—Her eyes—.”
“And you did nothing?” Konstantin’s voice was supple as a snake and well-tuned as any singer’s. Opraska quailed under his tone of incredulous contempt.
“I beat her when I could and forbade her to talk of it—I thought, maybe, that if I caught her young enough, the—madness wouldn’t take hold—.”
“Is that all you thought? Madness? Did you never fear for her soul?” Opraska opened her mouth, closed it again, and stared at the priest, bewildered. He stalked toward the center of the iconostasis, where a second Christ sat enthroned, surrounded by apostles. The moonlight turned his gold hair to grey-silver, and his shadow crawled black across the floor.
“Demons can be exorcised, Opraska Ivanovna,” he said, not taking his eyes from the icon.
“Ex—exorcised?” she squeaked.
“I—how?” She felt as though she were thinking through mud. All her life she had borne her curse. That it might just go away—her mind wouldn’t compass the notion.
“Rites of the Church. And much prayer.”
There was a small silence.
“Oh,” Opraska breathed. “Oh please. Make it go away. Make them go away.”
He might have smiled, but she couldn’t be sure in the moonlight.
“I will pray and think on it. Go back and go to sleep, Opraska Ivanovna.” She stared at him with big stunned eyes, then whirled and blundered toward the door, feet clumsy on the bare wood.
Father Konstantin prostrated himself before the iconostasis. He did not sleep at all that night.
The next day was Sunday. In the green-grey dawn, Konstantin returned to his own place. Heavy-eyed, he flung cold water over his head and washed his hands. Soon he must give service. He was weary, but calm. During the long hours of his vigil, God had given him the answer. He knew what evil lay upon this land. It was in the sun-symbols on the nurse’s apron, in that stupid woman’s terror, in the fey, feral eyes of Pyotr’s elder daughter. The place was infested with demons: chyerty of the old religion. These foolish, wild people worshipped God by day and the old gods in secret; they tried to walk both paths at once, made themselves base in the sight of the Father. No wonder evil had come to work its mischief.
Excitement rolled though his veins. He’d thought to molder here, in the back of beyond. But here was battle indeed; a battle for mastery of two thousand souls, with evil on one side and him as God’s messenger on the other.
The people were gathering. He could almost feel their eager curiosity. It was not yet like Moscow where people snatched hungrily at his words and loved him with their frightened eyes. Not yet.
But it would be.
Vasya twitched a shoulder and wished she could take off her headdress. Because they were in church, Dunya had added a veil to the heavy contrivance of cloth and wood and semi-precious stones. It itched. But she was nothing compared to Opraska, who was dressed as though for a feast-day, a jeweled cross round her neck and rings on each finger. Dunya had taken one look at her mistress and muttered under her breath about piety and gold hair. Even Pyotr raised an eyebrow at his wife, but held his peace. Vasya followed her brothers into church, scratching her scalp.
Women stood in the left of the nave, before the Virgin, while men stood on the right, in front of the Christ. Vasya had always wished she could stand next to Alyosha so they could poke and fidget during the service; Irina was so small and sweet that poking was not rewarding, and anyway Opraska always saw. Vasya locked her fingers behind her back.
At length, the doors at the center of the iconostasis opened, and the priest came out alone—they had no deacons or acolytes. The murmurs of the assembled village drifted into silence, punctuated by a girl’s giggle. The church was small and simple, the icons indifferently painted. Konstantin knew a pang for the color and pageantry of Moscow. But perhaps his voice rang clearer with silence all round, and indeed his hair was the brightest thing in the room. His blue eyes pierced the throng like knives, one at a time.
“Blessed is the kingdom,” said the priest, letting his voice wash over them, “of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit now and ever and unto ages of ages.”
He didn’t sound like Father Semyon, thought Vasya, for all the words of the liturgy were the same. His voice was like thunder, yet he placed each syllable like Dunya setting stitches. Under his touch, the words came alive. His voice was deep as rivers in spring. He spoke to them of life and death, of God and of sin. He spoke of things they did not know, of devils and torments and temptation. He called it up before their eyes so that they saw themselves submitting to the judgement of God, and saw themselves damned and flung down.
As he chanted, Konstantin pulled the crowd to him until they echoed his words in a daze of fascinated terror. He drove them on and on with the supple lash of his voice, until their answering voices broke and they listened like children, frightened during a thunderstorm. Just ast they were on the verge of panic—or rapture—his voice gentled.
“—Have mercy on us and save us, for He is good and the Lover of mankind.”
A heavy silence fell. In the stillness, Konstantin raised his right hand and blessed the crowd.
They trickled out of the church like sleepwalkers, clutching each other. Opraska had a look of exalted terror that Vasya couldn’t understand. The others looked dazed, even exhausted, the trailing ends of fearful rapture in their eyes.
“Lyoshka!” Vasya called, darting over to her brother. But when he turned to he, he was pale like the others, and his eyes seemed to come back to Vasya from a long way away. She was frightened to see his eyes unfocused and slapped him. Alyosha came back to himself and gave her a shove that should have put her in the dust, but she was quick as a squirrel and wearing a new gown. So she writhed backward and kept her feet, and then the two were glaring at each other, chests heaving and fists clenched.
They both recovered their senses at the same time. They laughed, and Alyosha said, “Is it true then, Vasya? Demons amongst us and torment awaiting if we do not cast them out? But chyerty—does he mean chyerty? The women have always left bread for the domovoi. What care has God for that? It is only a story.”
“Stories or no, why should we cast out the chyerty on the word of some old priest from Moscow?” snapped Vasya. “We have always left them bread and salt and water and we have not starved.”
“We have not starved,” said Alyosha hesitantly. “But perhaps God is waiting for us to die so that our punishment might never end.”
“For heaven’s sake, Lyoshka—” Vasya began, but she was interrupted by Dunya calling. Opraska had decreed a meal of special magnificence, and Vasya must roll dumplings and stir the soup.
They dined outside, on eggs and kasha and summer greens, bread and cheese and honey. The usual cheerful muddle was subdued. The young peasant women stood in knots and whispered.
Konstantin, chewing meditatively, permitted himself a glow of satisfaction. The father wore a black frown, true, and the green-eyed witch watched him with eyes hard as jadestones. But the others gazed at him with terror and a hungry admiration. Opraska Ivanovna glowed with a kind of hesitant joy. Konstantin was still riding their fervor, like a galloping horse, and in the silence of the nave after they had all gone, he had thrown it into his exorcism, thrown it all, until he would swear he could hear devils crying out and running for their lives, out of Pyotr’s walls and far away.
That summer, Konstantin went among the people and listened to their woes. He blessed the dying and he blessed the new-born. He listened when spoken to, and when his deep voice rang out, the people fell silent to hear him. “Repent,” he told them. “Lest you burn. The fire is very near. It is waiting for you and for your children, each time you lie down to sleep. Give your fruits to God and God alone. It is your only salvation.”
The people murmured together and their murmurs grew more and more fearful.
Konstantin ate at Pyotr’s table every night. His voice set their honey-wine rippling, and rattled their wooden spoons. Irina, giggling, took to setting her spoon against her cup to hear them clicking together. Vasya abetted her in this; the child’s gaiety was a relief. Irina was too young to be frightened by talk of damnation.
But Vasya was frightened.
Not of the priest, and not of devils, nor of pits of fire. She had seen their devils. She saw them every day. Some were wicked and some were kind, and some were mischievous. All were as human in their way as the folk they guarded. No, Vasya was frightened of her own people. They did not joke on the way to church anymore; they listened to Father Konstantin in heavy, hungry silence. And even when they were not in church, the people made excuses to visit his room.
Konstantin had begged beeswax from Pyotr, which he would melt and mix with his pigments. When the daylight shone into his cell, he would take up brushes and open phials of crushed powders. And then he would paint. Saint Peter took form under his brush. The saint’s beard was curly, his robe yellow and umber, his strange, long-fingered hand raised in benediction.
Lesnaya Zemlya could talk of nothing else.
One Sunday, desperate, Vasya smuggled a handful of crickets into the church and dropped them amongst the worshippers. Their chirping made an amusing counterpoint to Father Konstantin’s deep voice. But no one laughed; they cringed and whispered of evil omens. Opraska Ivanovna had not seen, but she did suspect who was behind it. After the service, she beat her stepdaughter with such fury that Vasya wept and fled into the trees.
Again and again Konstantin condemned the offerings—bread or honey-wine—that they made to their hearth-spirits. “Give it to God,” he said. “Forget your demons, lest you burn.” The people listened. Even Dunya was half-convinced; she muttered to herself and shook her old head, and picked the sun-symbols from aprons and kerchiefs.
For the domovoi there was little more than crumbs.