It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon, bearing no hint of trouble, when Natalia stepped inside the tiny church, dragging her vacuum cleaner behind her. She stood in the rear, blinking while her eyes adjusted to the dim interior, lit only by the late sunshine filtering through very small windows. She was a short, rather stocky woman in her mid-forties, with light brown-and-gray hair and a square jaw. Her mild blue eyes were set in a broad, kind face. The face bespoke hardship in her life, but it also showed laughter lines. For Natalia had known plenty of trouble – she had survived labor camps in Siberia and Germany – but that was long ago, and none of it had obliterated her optimistic spirit. And she had known love. While her marriage had not been all she had hoped, yet it had not been unbearable, either, as so many were. She had taken comfort in her two grown children – and in Father Gabriel.
As President of the women’s sisterhood, she had become Father’s close collaborator. He consulted her often; sometimes when he telephoned, they talked for as long as an hour. Of course, he called everybody in the Sisterhood and always said many flattering things. But she knew she was the main one. Yes, it was she who looked after him, she in whom he confided, she who took him a supper now and then, or some of her fancy baked goods. She kept him carefully informed of everything pertaining to each of the parishioners. She filled many of the functions of a Matushka, for although Father had served St. Vladimir’s for over a year now, his wife had not yet joined him. Natalia revered Father; she was his eyes and ears and chief advocate, and she felt greatly honored thus to serve him. She dreaded his upcoming transfer to a parish out of state.
It was strange, she thought, when her eyes had adjusted, how different the church seemed Saturdays compared to Sundays. Instead of dozens of lit tapers, only burned-down stubs stood in the sand trays before the icons. No burning incense wafted its clouds through the room, although everything was steeped in its odor: the Victorian sofa and chairs on the left side, the velvet tablecloth embroidered with the Russian cross on the right, the heavy hangings, the oriental rug. Most of all, there were none of the parishioners, none of the twenty or so people who stood and prayed here all morning on Sundays.
She had arrived early; Abigail was not yet here. Natalia found an electrical outlet and began vacuuming the oriental rug. (Thank God, she thought, this was a Russian church and not an American one, which would have had pews to vacuum around and under.) She had just finished when the door opened and Abigail’s tall figure appeared in a flood of light. Natalia wiped her forehead with her arm and went forward to greet her. “So nice to see you,” she said, kissing Abigail on both cheeks. “And so good of you to come help me clean.”
Abigail, flushed with pleasure, squeezed Natalia’s outstretched hand, her big dark eyes shining. “So good of you to let me come. It’s a great comfort to me, since I cannot be here on Sundays.”
Natalia nodded, not at all sure she understood such a sentiment. But then she never had quite understood Abigail. “The American lady,” as she was called – somewhat incongruously, for they were all Americans now – had simply appeared in church one Sunday last Spring, and had come nearly every Sunday since.
“Who is she?” the parishioners had wondered. And Father Gabriel had replied, “She is one who loves our music, loves our Liturgy, loves our language, and loves us.”
“But she isn’t Russian?”
“No." That was unfortunate.
"In her heart she is Orthodox.” And looking around him, Father Gabriel had added pointedly, “Perhaps more than some of us.”
That had silenced the tongues, and St. Vladimir’s, with characteristic warm-heartedness and simplicity, had taken Abigail to its bosom. She obviously knew something about holy Orthodoxy, for she knew what to do during the Divine Liturgy. She appeared devout and had even learned quite a bit of Church Slavonic. Yet she had never spoken of converting. How was one to explain a person like that? What did an American want with a Russian church anyway? Yet no more questions had been asked – until the day two months ago when she had gone away as suddenly and mysteriously as she had appeared.
Aloud, Natalia said, “Nobody knows why you left us. Not even Father Gabriel can explain it.” She watched Abigail closely.
“I decided to go to church with my family from now on, Natalia.”
Natalia remembered what old Mr. Belov had said: “Ah, yes, her family. No, I tell you it is more. This is because of our priest.”
Natalia knew Father Gabriel could be brusque, but she couldn’t imagine him offending anybody that much, least of all the American. The other parishioners had questioned Mr. Belov, demanding to know what he meant, but he only made the Sign of the Cross and would say nothing more.
She stared at Abigail a moment and said, “So it was whispered. But then Mr. Belov, he said no, that was not the reason, that it was something more.” She scrutinized Abigail’s face for some telltale sign.
“It was a very difficult decision for me, Natalia.” Abigail’s great brown eyes grew misty.
A non-answer, thought Natalia. “Well,” she said, “I understand that. I don’t blame you. Especially since your children are still so young. How old are they?”
“Seven and ten.”
“Ah, yes. Perhaps you have made the right choice, after all, for both parents to go to the same church with the children…”
Abigail moved toward the closet in the rear corner of the church and took out an apron, which she tied about her slender waist to protect her dress. Natalia wondered if the American lady never wore slacks? Then from her purse she drew a kerchief and tied it, Russian style, over her thick, dark hair. Natalia wondered how long those tresses were, when unpinned from the nape of Abigail’s neck.
“Where shall I begin?” Abigail asked.
“I was just getting ready to polish the icons.”
Abigail nodded and reached into the closet for paper towels and spray glass cleaner. The small room was crammed with icons, dozens of them adorning every wall and the iconostas, the partition separating the altar from the nave. Every week, the lipstick marks had to be removed from them; as Natalia pointed out, “Nobody wants to kiss an icon that is full of lipstick.”
Natalia and Abigail worked together in silence for a few minutes, polishing icons on opposite sides of the room.
“How is everybody at St. Vladimir’s?” Abigail inquired, returning an icon from the side table to the wall and taking down another.
“Oh, everybody is just fine. Mrs. Kutznetzov, she is feeling much better. Everybody else the same – except Father Gabriel. Oh, Abigail, he looks awful. Awful! Something terrible has happened to him, I think.”
“He’s still recovering from his surgery.”
A memory sprang to Natalia’s mind of his hospital stay, for both she and Abigail had nursed him through it. He had been just coming out of the anesthesia and was still groggy when he had looked up, caught sight of Abigail, and said, “Ah, there she is! Angel! The apple of my eye.” And he had promptly fallen asleep again. Natalia had been surprised at her jealousy when Father had said that, even though she knew such jealousy was foolish; it had only been the medicine talking.
Aloud, Natalia said, “No, no, Abigail! Well, the surgery, too, but that’s not what I mean. It’s his eyes, Abigail, and his face. Mostly that dark, terrible look in his eyes.” Then, as an afterthought, with which she was very pleased, she added, “Have you not noticed?”
“I have not seen Batushka these past two months.”
“No, really? Ah, I remember now; it only started just about the time you left. But you have spoken to him, yes? Have you not heard it in his voice, how all the life has gone?”
“I haven’t spoken to him, either.”
Not spoken to Batushka either, she who had sat by his sickbed day and night only a few short weeks ago? She who had run to fetch extra blankets when he lay shivering, and had spooned hot soup into his mouth, and guarded his sleep from meddlesome nurses and read him his prayers? Not even spoken to him in two months? Natalia was astonished. But all she said was, “Well, it frightens me. You will see what I mean when he gets here.”
She saw Abigail stiffen.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Abigail, I know you asked me to keep your coming here a secret, but Father is coming to putty the front window, and it does have to be done or the rain gets in, and since it was only Batushka, well, I hoped you wouldn’t mind. He will not tell anyone.”
Abigail had laid down her paper towels. A wave of guilt rippled through Natalia. Abigail had emphasized that nobody should be told of her visit. Natalia had respected that wish (until yesterday, at least), although she could see no point in it. Why make such a secret of something as ordinary as dusting and sweeping? In any case, Natalia had not been minded to miss a chance of Father Gabriel’s company. Therefore, when he had proposed coming to repair the window today, she had said nothing to dissuade him.
She watched Abigail apprehensively, and was much relieved when the American lady turned to her, smiling, and said, “Oh, well, since it is only Batushka, as you say…” and began rubbing the icon again.
Natalia sighed and unfolded a newly-laundered length of lace-edged, white linen and draped it carefully around the icon of St. Nicolai.
“Natalia,” Abigail’s voice sang out, “did you know I’ll be moving away soon?”
“Oh, no! No, I didn’t know that. You are moving, what for?”
“My husband and I have decided to go back to our home town. We like it very much here, of course, but even better there. So we’ll be moving two weeks from now, and I’m afraid I won’t be able to help you any more on Saturdays.”
“Well, that’s alright. Somebody else will help me. My married daughter sometimes does. Your husband, he has a better job there?”
“Actually, none, so far. But he has a couple of good prospects.”
Privately, Natalia could not understand leaving one job before having found another. But aloud, she only said, sincerely, “I shall miss you very much, Abigail.”
The door opened, the bright sunlight stabbing the sanctuary, and Father Gabriel stepped in, carrying his tool kit. He was an imposing figure, tall and robust. (Actually, Natalia thought he could probably afford to lose ten pounds or so.) His hair and beard were very black, unusually black for a man his age, only very slightly laced with silver. His eyebrows were bushy, and looking into the eyes beneath them, Natalia saw the now familiar black thunderclouds. It pained her; she had been accustomed to those eyes exuding tenderness. He was dressed in a clerical shirt with a silver pectoral cross, and wore shabby pants and even shabbier shoes.
“Ah, Batushka!” cried Natalia, feeling the warm glow that always swelled in her in his presence. “Come in, Father.” She stepped forward and held out her crossed hands to receive his blessing. He traced the Sign of the Cross on her right palm and uttered the prayer. She gave his hand the secretly-more-than-ritual kiss. Then she said, “I have a helper today, Father. Look who is here. It’s Abigail!”
Batushka seemed taken aback. He stared at Abigail and said, “How beautiful you look! That is, it’s very nice to see you, Abbie.”
“Likewise,” said the American lady, smiling. She held out her crossed hands for the blessing, which he gave.
“I came to putty the front window,” said Father Gabriel. “I didn’t know – such an unexpected pleasure. How good of you to help us in this way.”
“My consolation, Father.”
“Yes, yes. I see… Well, better get to work. We want to be finished with everything before Vespers at four o’clock.” He walked to the front window, put down his tool chest, got a stepping stool from the closet, and set to work.
Natalia kept up a gay chatter as they worked. Not that she felt gay at all, for Batushka looked very ill. It was not the walking death look she had described to Abigail, thanks be to God; it was more like a volcano about to erupt. No, she did not feel at ease. But she kept talking. For neither of her companions seemed much inclined to speak, and she was not one who could tolerate awkward silences.
“Abigail is moving away, Father. In two weeks.”
“Oh?” He didn’t turn around, but kept puttying. Natalia had the curious feeling this was not news to him. She waited. Finally, he asked, “Where will you go, Abbie?”
“Back to our hometown,” was her quiet reply.
There’s a rather evasive answer, thought Natalia. What was going on? She decided to probe a little. “You will write us, won’t you?”
“I’m not much of a letter writer, Natalia. But even if I do not write, I shall think of you all every day of my life, every single day. And the friendship will always be there. Forever.”
There was another long silence while Natalia searched for something with which to fill it.
“Father is also moving,” she said finally. “At the end of the month.” She watched Abigail carefully, but the American lady only continued to polish an icon, rather too fiercely, perhaps. “He is being re-assigned,” Natalia continued. “We are all very upset.”
Father Gabriel still did not turn from his work. “Actually, there’s news about that, which I will announce tomorrow. I’m not going. The Bishop wants me to stay here, after all.”
“Ah! Wonderful! I suppose the other parish couldn’t support you? Well, I’m so happy for us. We dreaded your leaving us, Father.”
“And I didn’t want to go. Too little time here to accomplish much.”
“Oh, no, Father! You have accomplished a great deal!”
“The words of kindness, Natalia.” He fell silent again, and Natalia, for once, could think of nothing to say, for sheer joy.
Presently, Abigail spoke up. “The prayer book you lent me, Father, I’ve left it on your desk.”
There was a pause before he said, “That’s the one you learned the Church Slavonic out of, isn’t it?”
“That and the CD of the Divine Liturgy you had Mr. and Mrs. Verevkin buy me, yes.”
“And you use it when you pray?”
“I’ve used it every day, Father.”
“Well, it is an extra. I would be honored if you would keep it, since you have such good use for it.”
She bowed her head. “The honor is mine. Thank you, Father.”
In a few moments, Abigail spoke again. “Father?”
“Oh, they’re fine, thank you.”
“Matushka?” Her voice was barely above a whisper.
“She will come for Easter?”
“No. She’s very busy, unfortunately.”
That wasn’t why Matushka was not coming, Natalia knew. Hadn’t she, Natalia, made a special point of having Father and his wife for dinner when Matushka had come for Christmas? Hadn’t she observed that there was no love between them? The Christmas visit had clearly been a disaster.
Batushka hesitated a moment, then asked, “And your family, Abbie?”
“Very well, thank you.”
“And your dear husband?”
“Happy as can be.”
He stopped and stared at the window for a long moment; then, with a sigh, resumed his puttying. “Well, I am grateful. And – and how is Abbie herself? Have you – been happy?”
With his back to Abigail, Batushka could not see the pain Natalia saw sweep over Abigail’s face before she answered, slowly: “What can I say? God has been good to me.” Yet another non-answer.
Natalia was beginning to perspire. She swung open a window and breathed the fresh air. The cherry trees were in bloom; the birds were already nesting in them. Children were playing in the park across the street. She thought, “How right everything is out there, and how mysteriously wrong everything is in here!”
Abigail had finished her icons, and was removing the candle stubs from the sand trays. “Do we have anything to scrape off wax with?” she asked.
Wordlessly, Father Gabriel stepped down from his stool and withdrew a pocketknife from his hip pocket.
“Oh, yes,” said Abigail, “that will do nicely. Thank you.”
She held out her hand. Batushka laid the unopened knife in it and closed her fingers around it, his black eyes boring into hers.
Natalia was alarmed at his unsteady gait as he returned to his window.
Abigail opened the knife and began scraping the wax from the big copper candle plate. It took her only a few minutes. She closed the knife and took it up to Father Gabriel. “Your pocketknife, sir. I thank you most kindly.” Her voice was teasing and cheerful, as though she had not even noticed the terrible something in his eyes and face, but she had, Natalia knew, because there were tears in Abigail's eyes as she turned away. Natalie watched her take a dollar from her pocket and put it in the offering box and light a candle. She went to the rear of the church and knelt before the icon of the Resurrection.
It was nearly four o’clock, time for Vespers. Batushka put away his stepping stool and went behind the iconostas to vest. Natalia got out the broom and dustpan and swept up the paint chips he had left behind.
Abigail arose, leaving her candle before the icon. She disappeared out the side door for a moment, into Father’s office, and returned, prayer book in hand. She took off her kerchief and hung her apron in the closet. “I must go” she said to Natalia. “Time to cook supper for a hungry family.” She smiled, but wanly.
Father Gabriel emerged from behind the altar, robed in shining purple and gold brocade. His eyes were dull, his face pale. He took the American lady’s hands and smiled. “You made my people very happy by your presence with us. Thank you.”
“Our people,” she replied, through tears.
He nodded and said, softly, “Our people.”
She turned to go. Father went back behind the iconostas and Natalia walked with Abigail to the door.
“Well,” she said to the American, “I will pray God goes with you always.”
“Thank you. I will pray the same for you.”
They hugged and kissed each other; then Abigail opened the door and was gone.
Natalia was just putting away her broom and dustpan when she heard it – a thud and a moan from the altar. Her heart froze. She dropped the dustpan and tiptoed up to the icon screen. She couldn’t see him. “Father?”
“Abbie? Come quickly, Abbie, quickly.”
Natalia hesitated; women were not allowed behind the iconostas. Then fear overcame reverence, and she stepped into the forbidden space.
Father Gabriel was lying on the floor behind the altar.
“Father! Have you tripped?” She already knew he had not.
She rushed to the back of the church where she had laid her purse, fumbled in it for her cell phone and fairly screamed at the 911 operator to send an ambulance. Then she flew back to the altar area.
He was still calling, weakly, “Abbie. Abbie.”
“It is Natalia, Father. Abigail has gone.”
He stared up at her, bewildered, incredulous. Finally, he murmured, “That cannot be. No, no...”
Natalia stood glued to the floor, horrified. She stared at the priest. Suddenly it all fit. She felt weak as one realization after another rained down upon her. She had inadvertently re-united two people who had not wished to see one another again – or, rather, had greatly wished but had planned not to. This whole afternoon, with its studied casualness and forced cheer, had been a charade, an act improvised, clumsily, for her benefit. She wondered what scenes might have been enacted, what tears have flowed, what words have been exchanged, but for her presence. Or had all that already happened sometime before? Mr. Belov had been right; the American’s absence from St. Vladimir’s had been because of Batushka. Not only that, she was moving out of town precisely so Batushka would not have to, so his bishop would let him stay and St. Vladimir’s would be spared its priest. (Dear God! Did the Bishop also know of this? But obviously he did.)
Stunned, Natalia sank to her knees beside the priest. Tears stung her eyes, tears of self-reproach. How foolish she had been, to entertain such feelings toward him, who all along had loved Abigail! And look where loving him had gotten poor Abbie: bereft of her beloved St. Vladimir’s, moving out of town without even leaving an address, no job for her husband, and only a prayer book, a CD, and tears to show for it. And what better outcome could ever have been expected? None, none. Natalia might not have been to the university, and she might not be the world’s greatest genius, but a fool she would not be, at least not any longer. There is no swifter or surer quencher of passion than the realization that the other person's is directed elsewhere, and Natalia felt it all drain away. This man on the floor before her was no longer a secret love, nor yet a spiritual father to her, but a human being, and one in need.
She had no time to think of herself or her own feelings. She had seen death as a child in Siberia and in the German camps. She knew its look. She sank to the floor, on her knees.
“Batushka,” she said, as gently as she could, “You are married, and Abigail is married.”
“Father, you must repent, and quickly!”
“Repent. How many times? How many times may I repent?”
“’Seventy times seven,’ Father.”
He grimaced. “I have used them all up.”
“A thousand times a thousand, then!” She was choking.
“A thousand thousand times I have already begged forgiveness for whatever hurt or harm has been done. But – what, repent of love, Natalia? I will not; I cannot.”
Natalia was sobbing. She let the torrent of her tears cascade from her cheeks onto his purple-and-gold brocaded chest. “But Father, there are different ways to love. Good ways and bad ways. There is love, and there is passion…”
He shook his head, very slightly, and spoke in little gasps. “I love all of her with all of me. I never knew how to separate spirit, mind, and body. Sometimes, I wonder if anybody does. Do you? All I know is, for the first time, I love. The first time, Natalia. Shall I repent of that?”
“Oh, I don’t know, Father! Her voice was reduced to a squeak. “I’m all confused, so confused! Her tear-drenched head sank to his chest. He reached up and patted her wet cheek.
"Me, too. But do you - know something, Tasha? God understands.” He paused. “Yes. Yes, God – understands.”
His hand fell from her cheek; his chest under her stopped heaving. She sat up. His unseeing eyes gazed at her. She closed them. The wailing of sirens outside drew nearer. She folded his hands over his chest. Then she staggered to her feet, still weeping, to go and open the door.