The icon rode in the wagon with him amid sacks full of last year’s potatoes. This grim man in a clunker with a wagon has been Osyp’s only chance for a ride on the way there, but at least he was able to stretch his legs out. The potatoes were sprouting; he could even hear their shoots moving in the sacks. The fabric in which the icon was wrapped, slid down a little, revealing a corner of a colorful canvas, and a stray bee, woken by an early warm spell, tried to land on it. Osyp saw this as a good sign and didn’t even worry that the bee would inevitably die once it got colder again. As legend has it, Gebre Mesqel Lalibela, a king and a holy man, was surrounded by a swarm of bees at his birth, which his wise mother took as a sign that he was going to become a great man. Osyp dubbed the icon Lalibela too, although technically it was a male name. So that was how he addressed it: “Hold on, Lalibela”, he would say, adjusting its cover. The word Lalibela seemed to him beautiful beyond thought: these gentle three l-sounds that delighted his mouth, these song-like vowels. Lalibela was his symbol of the Faith. If he could, he would give that name to everything animate and inanimate. If he had a yacht he’d christen it Lalibela. If he had a dog, he’d call it Lalibela, and it would be the best animal in the world. Once he told his sweetheart (he wondered whether she was still waiting for him to come back from his travels) that he would like to call their future daughter Lalibela, and she twisted a finger at her temple. So, he called the icon Lalibela too, although, in fact it depicted the Virgin Mary–a classic image of the Hodegetria type. Osyp was worried about her a little, for she had dark skin. People here had never favored strangers, but recently things had gotten even worse.
The icon had been a gift from his friend, a deacon of Bet Giorgis church in the Ethiopian city of Lalibela, presented to Osyp after the third visit he made, out of love and respect for local traditions. It showed a nativity scene: The Virgin Mary with the Child in her arms, Jesus meaningfully pressing his little palm to her lips, and above them, in upper corners of the canvas, two angels with their wings spread. Mary, the Son of God, and the angels all had skin of a noble coffee color, black round eyes and dramatically dark eyelids. The angels’ wings were covered with greenish-ruddy scales resembling alligator skin. The entire group looked surprised, and in certain lights even daring. The deacon explained that the icon was modern, painted by a naïve artist who preferred to remain anonymous, but all the canons of classic icon painting had been followed. And he declared it was a gift of deep trust and love, the one that would protect Osyp there, in his faraway homeland.
Everyone who accidentally saw this icon, from customs officers to random fellow travelers, needed an explanation on why the figures on it looked so unusual. Most of the time, Osyp would begin from afar, from Ethiopia itself and a dusty town in the mountains that once was called Roha but later took the name of the great king. Then he would tell about eleven orthodox churches carved out of stone, with the roofs that cut land into perfect crosses, and terribly long stone stairs leading to them. And this is how it is now–in the past people used to climb a rope and then crawl, like termites in the wood, through stone tunnels to the light at the end. Then he’d tell how the locals froze in the childlike Christianity, not spoiled by the Ecumenical Councils. How the city of Lalibela was Jerusalem itself, seen by the great king with his naïve eyes of youth and later recreated in his homeland; and how the river called Jordan flowed through that city. How their traditional icon painting depicts the world as locals are used to seeing it, most of the time resembling children drawings, sincere and bright. How one of the most honored saints there was an Ethiopian Moses the Black, a former servant of a wealthy master, who was dismissed for disgraceful behavior, didn’t want to live a life of decent labor, and became a leader of a gang. And after such a sinful life he repented and turned to God: having spent several years doing monastic deeds, holy Moses became a deacon, and then a priest at his church, and in fifteen years he gathered seventy-five pupils. And how this story was illuminating and meaningful to all. Or he’d tell about this St. Thecla who had been standing on one leg for seven years wanting please God, so it had dried up. Then an angel put that leg at Lord’s altar, and St. Thecla was rewarded with three pairs of wings for himself and another pair for his leg. That’s how he was depicted: dark-skinned, joyful, with six colorful wings and a winged leg jumping at his side. Or about this saint whose dog got eaten by a lion. The saint didn’t say anything to the cruel beast except for a soft reproach: something like “What have you done, my friend!”. And then the lion was so ashamed of himself and so impressed with the saint’s kindness that he became his dog and let his master ride on his back.
He’d tell how incredibly colorful schools of fish swam in that bright blue iconic river, in which John the Baptist baptized Jesus. And how convincingly the Ethiopians depict the reptiles of all sorts which surround the pagans on their icons: alligators lying on their shoulders and snakes for their belts. And that on their icons all figures do really have black skin–the Blessed Virgin, Jesus nailed to the cross, the disciples, the angels and the saints. They have a white-skin Virgin, brought by pilgrims, around there as well. They take in to the way of the Cross to celebrate Christmas, and then everyone admires the delicate European features and fair skin of the Holy Mother.
He’d also tell that Christmas in Ethiopia, and in the city of Lalibela in particular, is a very special occasion. Their calendar is also Julian, and Christmas Eve is on the sixth of January, too. The ceremony is quite a sight: all these rivers of pilgrims streaming from the mountain in their white and yellow hats, in snow-white robes waving in the breeze. Their faces glow like dark lanterns; their dark feet are cracked, but it doesn’t stop the power of their faith to lead them forward. They get together a couple of days before the holiday, sit along the walls of their cliff-churches and read holy books for days on end. They don’t eat or drink–they live on holiness alone. Voices saying prayers, women’s shouts, children’s cries all mingle in the air; and when everything gets silent for a brief time in the dead of night, the goats that pilgrims brought with them start bleating, and their amazingly musical bleats rise to the sky. By day the people, their faces aglow with living faith, dive into several meters deep stone wells full of holy water which helps infertile women, sick children and weak old men alike. And it is quite a sight how they enter their church: squeezed up against each other, raising their hands to the sky, they disappear one by one in a mass of rock which seems to swallow them, but after a little while it comes alive from inside with their voices, drum rolls and songs. On the holiday night, a river of fire flows from the hills when pilgrims light their candles; and by day priests with colorful umbrellas walk in the mountains, the wind turning them into frayed desert flowers.
Osyp’s excited stories oftentimes sounded like preaching, and people listened to them like they listened to fairy tales, asking for specifics. Once he almost missed his flight because of this. But in most cases, he encountered skepticism and suspicions. People asked him why he cared that much, what he got from it. When he gasped explaining that it was a genuine Christianity not spoilt by the centuries of European clerical intrigues, the closest to the concept of a true faith–pure, childish, colorful and living, they would just wave it away. Once he was accused of working off an American grant. Another time–of taking advantage of the moment: a grim officer in a private screening room smirked, “First all these black refugees swarm in here, and now you are bringing them a black icon?”. Osyp tried to explain that there was no logical connection, that those refugees came for various reasons and from different places, but to no avail: his explanations crushed against an ice-cold argument, “Our world is different. We don’t need this here!”. Well, at least they let him into the country.
There was only one place in the world he could bring Lalibela to and leave it in relative safety–Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Damned hamlet. His friend Luka served as a senior priest of that church. The hamlet was called Damned because it was the shabbiest people in town who settled there, and the church couldn’t get any money from them. The priests, whom the eparchial hierarch tried to send there one after another, weren’t paid extra for their ministrations–funerals mostly; and even coliphia wasn’t good there, from millet instead of rice for some reason. Weddings and baptisms, rare already, lacked that clear, sunny, joyful elevation, and went by in a confused silence, as if people felt guilty for being poor. No wonder that priests prayed for a chance to flee from this place as soon as possible, and afterwards, having got a new, prosperous, neat parish in acknowledgment of their suffering, complained to their friends over a glass of church wine that the crowd of laypeople from Damned hamlet on holy days looked to them like cockroaches, rustling but wordless. For a while, only guilty priests were sent to minister here, those who had to sit out a scandal, but they soon run out even of those. Then, right on St. Elijah’s Day in August, a lightning hit the dome of the wooden XVII century church during a particularly violent summer storm, as if to prove that the hamlet was indeed irrevocably damned. It was only by a miracle that the entire church didn’t burn down. People’s efforts didn’t help much; the fire was put out by rain. Only a half of walls’ height has left; the charred bones of the dome stuck out of their stumps, pointed at the sky. An emotionally unstable Afghan War veteran Vityanya, who’d get loaded on holy Sunday if he managed to get enough alms from people in the town during the week, kept saying that when his friend tripped a mujahid mine, his bones stuck out of his arms in the same way. People would nod confusedly and hunch their shoulders, left to their own devices and God to deal with their unforgiven sins. Until Luka came there.
Luka was a typical repentant publican. He looked very much like a disciple, or rather a great martyr: huge, dark eyes; curly, unruly black hair; ice-clear skin; leanness bordering on exhaustion of a hermit living in solitude for many years. His looks didn’t fit his job at his father’s debt collection agency that much, though some particularly religious debtors would indeed get scared when a living image of Jesus came in and appealed to their conscience and give him the last of their money with no qualms. His father saw this as a benefit for the family business and drew Luka with his degree in psychology into it with no regrets, which considerably offended his other son, Luka’s step-brother, a straightforward, heavyset young man who resorted to much more down-to-earth ways of getting a debt after debt repaid to him. However, their father’s happiness soon turned out to be delusive. Luka and Osyp got to know each other and became friends right when Luka waived his hefty debt for a mortgage apartment shared with Nastya. Or, rather, that mortgage was Nastya’s, but Osyp was trying to repay it. Until it completely slipped his mind while he was in one of his expeditions to Ethiopia. Once back, he listened, perplexed, to fourteen threatening voicemail messages and read a note from Nastya. The note said that the mortgage wasn’t paid for four months now, and that she knew how much he spent on his plane tickets and a new wide-angle lens, and that she would have none of it, because he should be the one who wears pants in the family, so she would go to live with her mother for now and figure something out later, and he can do whatever he wants. Osyp, totally confused, tried to recall when was the last time he saw her wearing a skirt but couldn’t, and then opened the door Luka ringed at. Luka came alone, walking from another end of the stove-hot city. He took his time gulping down cold water in the kitchen and then took as much time to explain to Osyp that it was a wrong thing to do and that he’d find himself in court in no time, so it would make much more sense to repay his debt right away. Osyp, in his turn, tried to explain to Luka that it was a wrong thing to do, too, that he didn’t have that kind of money on him, and then he suddenly burst out a tornado of words: he told Luka about everything, from the mystical Ethiopia to his permanent homelessness. Luka listened to him very carefully until he fell silent, and then got up, said that this matter would wait until the next day, and left. A day after, at the same time he brought a wad of cash, took Osyp to the bank, and hustled around like an eel on a frying pan. When leaving, he said that stories like the ones Osyp told him were worth much more than that. That’s how Osyp made friends with Luka and made up with Nastya. It turned out later that it was not the only time in his debt collection career that Luka did something like this. He met Leska, a divorced single mother on antidepressants, this way. Leska just moved from her ex-husband’s apartment in the town to her grandmother’s moldy little house in Damned hamlet. Her medicine was not very effective, so when Luka and his brother dropped in to make her pay back the loan she’d taken for a fridge or to confiscate it, she laced into them like a Harpy. She tried to scratch their faces and screamed: “What about my food? Should it just rot? And me with two children too?”. Luka’s brother wanted to hit her in the head, but Luka preferred gentlier methods. Not caring about scratches, he hugged Leska trying to calm her down–and fell in love right there and then. How can you not respond to such passion? he explained later. After that, he changed for good. He repaid Leska’s debt himself and got her old laundry machine repaired. He hung out in Damned hamlet for days, bringing food, playing with Leska’s sons, taking them to look at suburban trains and trying to hit a window of an abandoned train car, growing rusty on a gravel hill, with an empty vodka bottle at the first attempt. He kept going around the charred church, looking at it from all sides. By that point, his father found out what a large hole his son’s humanist ideal made in his family’s capital and clutched his head in horror. After a skirmish, the parties agreed that it couldn’t go on like that. Luka told his father about his intention to try and restore the church in Damned hamlet. Cooling down, his father thought it was always a good idea to have an insider anywhere, let alone in the realms of God. He put his best suit on, stuffed some cash into his man-purse and went for a meeting with a diocesan council. The council was happy to deal with the problem once and for all, though they did put on some airs to keep up the appearance. In a month, Luka was appointed a superior. When it came to theological education, he only had a Religion Studies certificate from his university, and his mother’s Bible and a Book of Psalms, both pocket-size, bound in faux leather of blue and burgundy colors respectively. But Luka had good intentions and it compensated for the rest. The locals took in their new minister’s appointment with enthusiasm–they were of someone’s interest again. Luka’s father bought two trucks full of construction materials, hired five of the soberest local men, and together with them got the church more or less in shape. Leska was happy, Luka’ mother was happy, Luka’s father was proud and gladly gave him more money to spend on the church, even his brother took it to his heart and came to ask for the remembrance of the departed when police raided his mobile collection teams. The confessions Luka heard had some elements of Freudian psychoanalysis, and his sermons included helpful examples from gestalt therapy. But people didn’t complain, they supported their minister as much as they could, and couldn’t wait for him to get married and lead a proper life. Although the diocesan council forbade him to take a divorced mother of two children as a wife. But otherwise they all lived amicably, at least until now.
Luka sat on a ladder, smoking. Snow thawed not that long ago, it warmed up outside, so in the morning he leaned the ladder against the church wall and went up to see if the ceiling leaked again. Now he sat on the highest step, smoking and thinking how to explain to his father that he needed money again. He saw Osyp from afar and jumped carelessly from the ladder, almost breaking his legs. They hugged. Then they sat in the basement drinking coffee with a rusty after-taste that Luka made right there too. Osyp showed him the icon.
‘Would you take care of it? It’s a church, it should have a place for an icon.”
Luka shook his head, half doubtful, half delighted.
“Famous African Virgins. I couldn’t imagine I would ever see one with my own eyes. But I don’t think locals are ready for such an encounter. They would definitely be shocked.”
“Well, I can’t take it home either. There’s none of my stuff there anyway.”
Luka was truly blessed–a feeling of risk couldn’t break through his armor, so risks themselves couldn’t do much harm to him afterward. That’s why he didn’t refuse to take care of Lalibela.
“Let’s just hang it in some not very noticeable place so that it doesn’t get too much attention, alright?”.
Osyp gave a nod. They shook hands at parting, and Luka went inside. Towards the evening it got colder again–it was the end of Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee before the Lent.
The week before Sunday of the Prodigal Son turned out to be challenging for Osyp. Nastya waited for him at home, but she said right off the bat that it couldn’t go on like this, and, in fact, he agreed. She said it was her turn to go away, and he agreed again. Her friend’s boyfriend got a job bartending at a beach club on Goa, and he wanted Nastya and her friend to help him out, and Osyp shouldn’t ask how it was arranged. She saved a little money, and he also honestly gave her all that was left from his travels and mortgage payments. He couldn’t rely on Luka’s finances anymore–the mortgage was like a blood-filled tick completely stuck in living flesh. Osyp tried to estimate how much more they owed the bank but gave up–the matter was helpless anyway. They had five nights before Nastya had to leave, and they spent them together in the same bed. Their sex was bleak, full of mutual weariness that didn’t go away despite the time spent apart and the distance. Every time she insisted on missionary position to be able to see his eyes, he was afraid that their knees would touch. It scared him; the fear was irrational and overwhelming; it seemed that this possible touching of pale knee caps glistening in the darkness like dim pearls was bound to end with a dreadful clatter. He turned and bent unnaturally, trying to shift his weight to his arms, and got tired fast. Then, he lay on his back thinking about Lalibela–how was she, was she all right in that dark corner of the church where Luka put her. He tried to tell Nastya that he brought a valuable gift from Ethiopia, a black Virgin Mary, but she wasn’t interested. Then he went to sleep and dreamed about a river of fire flowing down a mountain. At the end of the week, he saw Nastya off to the airport, told her to have fun and come back at some point–the last part sounded somewhat insincere–and waved his hand for a long time until she finally disappeared in the depth of the airport. Back home, he sat down, put his hands on the table, and stayed like that for some time, trying to keep his back as straight as he could. Emptiness stretched out in front of him, emptiness and a few moneyless weeks–he just submitted his photographic report to the tabloid and had no idea when he’d be paid for it. He was alone in this rotten, wet, dim period between seasons that was always the hardest for him to endure. Sitting like that, he saw that one of the wallpaper sheets puffed up little, and tiny red ants made a dwelling there, the same ants that he’d been noticing everywhere around the apartment for a long time, even in the sugar bowl. He shuddered and thought that he didn’t want ants to eat him here, like the last one of the Buendia family. He shook himself out of the stupor, went to the fridge, got an opened bottle of Nemiroff and a sliced sausage in a vacuum packaging–nothing else was there, –tossed them into his backpack and went to Damned hamlet.
Days were short, and the sun warmed up the damp churchyard only a little, but two women were already working there making lime in leaky zinc buckets. It was too early for work, but a lot needed to be done around the scarred church, so they had to start since the very morning. Luka was somewhere around, too. He wiped his palm with his muddy robe and stretched it out for Osyp to shake. Osyp instead came closer and hugged his friend again, on a whim, like when they first saw each other after a long separation. He noticed that he was shaking as if foreboding something inevitable and unknown. Luka stepped back and took a good look at his friend, and then without a word he jingled his keys, nodded to Osyp over his shoulder and started going down to the church’ basement. Osyp followed him into the damp darkness heavy with the smell of old vegetables, sat down carefully on a rickety chair, pulled his bottle and the sausage out of his backpack. Luka had some cloudy moonshine at the bottom of a round-sided bottle, too. He also picked up a three-liter jar with some unappetizing thick grayish substance from the floor and put it on a table.
“What’s that?”, Osyp asked.
“Lard”, said Luka with a wry smile. “Provision from my parish. They definitely wouldn’t let me go hungry”.
Osyp shuddered but Luka said matter-of-factly, “We have to eat this or we wouldn’t be able to drink a lot” and started getting the lard out with a knife and spreading it on a piece of bread.
They had a long, deep conversation, almost like the one when they first met, but now the main characters of Osyp’s monologue were his irrational, rusty fear, and Lalibela, his separation from which made him anxious. He was equally afraid of being alone and going outside, of speaking and staying silent. Luka put his chin on his fist and again listened to him carefully. His tongue faltered when he said: “You know, things are not as they should be in here. Not at all. But it is what it is. You can say that what I have in here is a counseling service with an extra function of absolution. But I’m missing a sexton. The people do help out but it’s still hard to minister without one. Do you want this job? Just as a mere formality, I’ll get it arranged. We’ll be all right together. Though I can’t promise you any luxuries, the Lent is around the corner, you know”.
Osyp looked at him, stunned. And nodded, having no doubt at all.
Big problems hit them on Shrovetide, right after the cycle of readings on the Last Judgment, which made sense to Osyp. He followed Luka around the church, sang along out of tune, handed him this and that, burned his fingers with candle ends, felt like a horse in a harness in his sticharion, heard or rather felt people’s sharp, quiet grumbling behind his back–and kept thinking that somehow it took them too long. And he was worried that his presence made it worse. A group of people stayed in the church after the service: four women and two men paused in the doorway in the last ray of light, talking in a loud whisper. Luka and Osyp, without saying a word to each other, stood erect at holy doors and waited. At last, two portly matrons made a step forward and one of them asked without a prelude in a sharp, cracked voice: “What’s that?”.
This question was accompanied with a tell-tale finger pointing. Lalibela hanged to the left of the altar, in a somewhat underlit corner, a lone carnation sticking out from a crystal vase in front of it–a remnant of someone’s celebration. It was obviously because of the thoughtfully chosen shadow that it took so long for the churchgoers to notice the skin color of the newly arrived Virgin Mother. But they saw it at last and demanded an explanation. Luka cleared his throat.
“This is an icon of the Nativity of Christ, my dear people. A gift for us from a faraway land, from Africa.”
“What for?”, a second woman asked firmly, her eyes like two thorny burdock balls. “This Virgin Mary is black! What kind of mockery is that?”.
“It’s not a mockery”, Luka replied softly. “Black people live there, and they are like us, it’s just that their skin color is different. This is how they see the world. They imagined Virgin Mary like that and that’s how they painted it.”
“They can paint whatever they want for themselves, but we don’t need that!”, a falsetto cut through the air all of a sudden.
One of the men said that, coming closer to the senior priest. Luka instinctively put his palm on his throat and stood there motionless.
“Who has ever heard of a black-skinned Virgin Mary! Her face was fair, beautiful. And what kind of a headwear is that? Why is her kerchief yellow? Why are these flowers there? Who told them to paint her like that? Red–that would be more like it!”.
“Have a fear of God, my… my friends!”, Luka faltered, perplexed, proving yet again his helpless weakness in arguments. “Has any human being seen Virgin Mary to say what she should look like? What if she really had darker skin? It’s just an image, people paint the way they imagine it! The main thing is what we have in our hearts…”.
“So they shouldn’t imagine this much”, the third woman murmured. She didn’t say anything else.
“Listen”, Luka was not ready to give up without a fight. “I’m not sure, I don’t think you’ve been there, but you could’ve heard or read about it. There’s an icon with the Blessed Virgin in Częstochowa, in Poland, and she has a very dark face on it, too. France also has a black Madonna. Then there’s one in Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey and in some other places in Europe…”.
“Don’t pull the wool over our eyes with your Europe, father! We know about the Holy Mother of God from Częstochowa, and she got darker over time. But what’s this? It’s a negro! Look at these lips! It’s like someone pulled them out! Like we don’t have enough negroes hanging around the town, and now this!”, the woman who started this conversation blurted and shuffled, angry, to the door. “All the best!”.
“You’d better take this out of here, father. Don’t provoke us to sin!”, the falsetto’s owner added and hurried after the rest.
Osyp and Luka looked at one another. A gust of chilly air whiffed from the door.
“The Knights Templar who brought over the first black Madonnas had more luck”, Osyp made a guilty joke.
Luka smiled with sympathy; it seemed like he was going to pat Osyp on the head to comfort him.
Next night, someone broke into the church and damaged Lalibela with a knife. Osyp, as if poked with a needle, woke up in the middle of the night in the church annex he shared with Luka. Half-asleep, he listened to the sounds of steps behind the wall and then with some sixth sense realized what was going on, jumped out of bed and ran outside, barely wrapped in his bedsheet. His hands felt wobbly, he couldn’t handle the door lock right away, so when he finally broke inside the only thing he saw was a dark silhouette jumping out of a window, knocking candle holders down on his way. He didn’t see the face, of course. The window wasn’t broken–the trespasser just scraped off the putty, pulled the glass out, and carefully leaned it against the wall on the frost-bitten grass. Osyp staggered about the church as if drunk; out of the corner of his eye he noticed a white, disheveled ghost reflected on the glassed icons and startled before he realized that it was he himself. He waited for Luka to wake up and come there and explained everything to him. They turned on the lights, and then Osyp saw clearly that the intruder didn’t have enough time to cut the icon crisscross, as he imagined and feared. The night guest just set about his wicked plan, when Osyp came, so only Lalibela’s cheek was cut with the point of a knife. Osyp touched a white slash on Madonna’s dark skin; threads stuck out of the ripped ends of the canvas. He felt like crying. Luka paced to and fro, his head bent down, apologizing all the time: “I should have mounted new, reliable double glass panes”. Osyp waved him away and dragged himself back to his annex. He didn’t have any energy left to explain how absurd those apologies were. Though Luka shouldn’t have reminded them about that Madonna from Częstochowa, Osyp thought suddenly, it looks like a cargo-cult now. But that thought didn’t stay in his head for too long. He collapsed on his bed as soon as he dragged himself there.
Osyp dreamed about a topical flower growing on Lalibela’s swarthy cheek, moving its petals, spreading its alluring scent, reaching out with its stalk, and eventually filling the entire church, opening doors to people who came inside the flower, brought candles, and song their songs to it. He woke up with a heavy heart, felt the urge to go and see Lalibela right away, but was afraid to, as if he was embarrassed, as if he felt guilty towards it. The women who arrived to help Luka around the church greeted him with undisguised irony. Luka came back from the well sullen and told them to spread the word that after that night’s events he wouldn’t hold a service until the next Sunday. Perplexed, they whispered to each other. Osyp was standing in front of the icon, touching its slash again and again. The hole looked smaller than at night–Osyp must have smoothed it when he looked it over for the first time. The touches hurt his fingertips. Luka approached him and said that he was going to gather his parish and get to the bottom of this. Osyp suggested that they should wait, calm down and think carefully what to do next. It might really be better to take the icon away and stop provoking people. Osyp walked down the road to a stall at a bus stop and bought a pack of cigarettes–Luka just ran out of them. Back on the churchyard, he stood under a pear tree and lighted one, not even bothering to hide. Didn’t smoke for the past four years–and there you go, goddammit!
Late in the afternoon the edges of the slash on Lalibela’s cheek almost got together, and the beads of a clear liquid, tiny like a pin’s head, appeared along its line. Osyp looked at them as if through a body of water and decided that it was a condensed fluid due to temperature differences: wind blew into the heated church from the cracks in that pulled-out window, even though Luka and he did their best to put the window pane back. It also turned out that he was not used to smoking anymore, so he was feeling dizzy for a couple of hours now. The Virgin Mary herself seemed a little paler on the face than usual, but Osyp explained it to himself as a play of light–the church was brighter now as the days got longer. Luka’s opinion, however, was different. He stood before the icon, shaking his head, looking by turns at Lalibela and at Osyp, his eyes big and round. Then he carefully touched the slash covered with clear drops. He smelled his fingertips; his expression changed as he put out his hand to Osyp. It smelled warm and oily, flowery and etheric. Osyp shrugged, puzzled. Luka shook his head again, threw the carnation out from the little vase, washed its chipped crystal glass diligently, wiped it, and put it right underneath the canvas. He crossed himself and stepped back a respectable distance away. Osyp hesitated for a minute but then did the same.
Luka refused to budge and decided to not hold a service until the end of the week. He deliberately said in front of the churchwomen that people who lay hands on the Virgin Mary’s icon do not deserve a service. Osyp kept silent and didn’t interfere. In a couple of days, Lalibela got noticeably paler, and not only her–the baby Jesus and their angelic escort as well. The slash closed like a shell; the drops got larger, as big as pearls, and then started trickling down right into the vase Luka put there. There was no doubt now–the icon was weeping myrrh.
On Saturday Luka opened the church for the parish. Osyp’s hands were shaking as he unlocked the door. This time people were rustling behind his back, but in a different way somehow, like a stormy sea, but he still tried not to look at them during the service. It was better not to. An emotionally unstable Afghan War veteran Vityanya came to the church tipsy and made a point of standing alone, at a distance from the others, in that shadowy corner where Lalibela hung. The sea wave of people rushed back from it like under a spell. Vityanya kept his left arm, withered after a shell splinter injury at war, in his pocket, and wobbled like a captain of a pirate’s ship straggling through a sea storm. Eventually, alcohol and stuffiness inside the small church took their toll on him. He fell down–either fainted or just lost the last bits of his strength–elbowed Lalibela and knocked the vase down. The myrrh poured all over him. People rushed to help their neighbor, naturally, and then a gasp rolled over the church. They all saw what Lalibela became like.
Before Sunday service, it got even paler. Luka took the icon from its dark corner and put it on the table next to the iconostasis. The women bought flowers and decorated the exotic Virgin. Never before did people from Damned hamlet cross themselves so heartily and shivered with fear of God so genuinely when they came into the church. An Afghan War veteran Vityanya didn’t show up for the service. Everyone was worried about him, though they assumed he was just ashamed of yesterday’s events. Still, he did come when people were already getting ready to go home and went straight to Luka. He carried a big plate of crepes, leftovers from his family’s celebration of Shrovetide, and something about him seemed unusual. People stopped on their way and followed him with their eyes. Vityanya crossed the churchyard, not paying attention to the greetings, came to Luka, bowed his head awkwardly, murmured some words of gratitude, unexpectedly passionate, and gave the priest his plate of crepes. He did it with both arms. With his withered one too! The crowd gasped.
The news about the miraculous icon swept through the hamlet like a storm and ruined its usual routine for good. It was Lent–the time to sort out relationships and change your life. Vityanya was going from house to house, showing his arm moving again, telling that it happened after he fell down in the church, elbowed the icon and got some myrrh from the vase poured over him. People shook their heads in disbelief, some waved him off entirely, but after sleeping on this news everyone, every single person went to confess and then stood in line to come up to kiss Lalibela and get a droplet of its precious myrrh. Suddenly, the church got stuffy. Luka worked without letup. Leska brought him a sandwich and a thermos with hot tea, but he didn’t even have time to sit down and eat it, hastily swallowing everything on the go. By that point, Lalibela got even paler, and the slash on her cheek almost healed itself. It was pink and uneven like on human skin and kept oozing fragrant myrrh. Osyp looked at the icon and didn’t recognize it: was it the same one that he brought with him here, the same one he wanted to care for? Now it was caring for itself, and for others too. It cured everyone and everything: women’s health issues, men’s alcoholism, children’s chest colds. An autistic girl spoke to her parents for the first time after she’d been brought there… But the most impressive miracle of Lalibela was that it healed the worst malady–it killed this black worm of self-doubt that had been gnawing at the people for centuries. Lalibela left everyone lightened up, capable of building a big new world, and a droplet of myrrh on their forehead seemed to open up their third eye. The children of locals, who’d been missing for decades, and everyone who left ages ago and swore to never come back, returned to the hamlet. The news of myrrh-weeping miracle and its effects spread at an exponential rate. A journalist from a mainstream TV channel arrived; she and a cameraman fiddled around the church for a long time, arranging the lights, shooting the icon itself, and then they took a comment from Luka who, confused, tried to tell a story about the church’s restoration and the cases of myrrh-weeping icons he knew of. Then they found those cured by Lalibela and made sure to record Vityanya first. He told how them his arm, withered from an Afghan war injury, started moving again in the same evening as he swayed and fell down, elbowing this Virgin Mary icon and pouring a little of its myrrh onto himself. He was not asking for alms on the market now; he felt like a normal person. Osyp expected that an identity of a night intruder who slashed Lalibela and stirred up all this trouble would be revealed during the shooting, but people held their tongues. Osyp was asked for a comment too, and he took his time telling how he’d brought this icon from Ethiopia, about that country and its untroubled childish Christianity; he was speaking about it in great detail and with emotion, seeing this approach as key, but almost all of his speech was cut out, only a couple of general phases were left, something entirely unessential.
The footage was out in the midst of the Lent, and with a helping hand from the journalist, Damned hamlet turned into the Hamlet of the Cured. The area was flooded with pilgrims–from the town at first, then from the neighboring regions, from nearby areas, and finally from the faraway parts of the country. It was a sign of good manners to go on pilgrimage to the icon on foot, as it was supposed to enhance the redemption and the effect of communication with it. No one knew where this myth came from, but all pilgrims repeated that rule. People left flowers by the icon, melted chocolates, dried up pieces of bread, sheets of simple-hearted acathistuses to the Virgin they composed by themselves. At the height of the pilgrimage the delegates from the diocesan council came to look at this brand-new miracle and announce their opinion, since the senior priest didn’t bother to report it, but they couldn’t get inside. Despite all their appeals, orders and even threats people didn’t make way for them and didn’t let them in. Furious, the priests left, threatening to complain to their bosses, the archdiocese or even the metropolitanate.
The residents of the hamlet noticed that Lalibela didn’t refuse to help anyone for the second or third time or as many times as they needed. The icon itself was growing lighter and clearer every day, and every day bigger and bigger drops of myrrh streamed down into the crystal vase that had to be emptied a couple of times a day so it wouldn’t overflow. It seemed to help people also become lighter and lighter with their every visit. And they believed her for she was fair-skinned.
And then Osyp felt there was going to be trouble. At that point he wasn’t quite sure what was going on, but devoted himself to Lalibela like a faithful paladin, a guarding knight of Lalibela the Virgin: he didn’t dare to leave it on its own just in case something happened. He got an idea to take discreet photos of pilgrims–over the years they could become the gold pool of this genre. Once, while sneaking snapshots as he usually did, he saw Nastya standing in the line to the icon. He was surprised that she came back from Goa so soon but didn’t approach her right away. He waited until she kissed the miraculous icon and only then caught up with her outside the church to ask what happened. She told him that the glamorous life on Goa she expected turned out to be a lie, that she was sold into slavery by her friend’s boyfriend, and only thanks to some kind people she and her friend didn’t end up in an exotic Sri Lankan brothel full of white women. And now she was back, so disappointed in everything, and she heard about this miracle from the locals and couldn’t help but come. Osyp said that it was the same icon he tried to tell her about right after he came back. Nastya looked at him, surprised:
“But didn’t you say she was black?”
“Yes, she was, both she and baby Jesus, and the angels too. And now a miracle happened, and she got lighter after the incident.”
“You could’ve left her at our place. And everything could’ve been different”, Nastya said spitefully.
She left and didn’t tell him to come home, but she didn’t mention the mortgage either. He learned later that Lalibela helped her too: Nastya found a really well-to-do boyfriend at last and traveled to Goa with him, this time safe and for real. Osyp wouldn’t go anywhere anyway; he couldn’t leave Lalibela alone with the people.
Wandering about the hamlet full to the brim with pilgrim hordes, he couldn’t help but overhear various conversations. And every day they talked louder and bolder how the residents of the hamlet–Damned hamlet in the past, the Hamlet of the Cured now–should finally stop this annoying flow of people. Yet they shouldn’t give this icon to anyone but should keep it here on the arrangement with the eparchy and live like they used to. This miracle belongs to them, others should get lost. Vityanya, a star of this miracle-working, was complaining the loudest–not in public, however; in public, he kept telling the story of his miraculous healing.
Their resentment peaked on the Holy Week when the number of pilgrims broke the record. The weather got warmer, and they were sleeping side by side, right under the fences. On Good Wednesday, Vityanya refused to give water to one of them–he just spat on the ground and went inside without saying a word. However, his plump wife hurried out with a pitcher and a glass, ‘oh’ing and repeating “It’s okay, it’s okay, he’s just tired!”.
All this scared Osyp a lot. He was trying hard to tie two pieces of a torn thread together, to explain to himself how come that the people who became so amazingly enlightened, so kind that they tinkled in the wind as if having wings from tinfoil–that silver one chocolate bars are wrapped in–every single day discovered the ancient deposits of fury deep inside them. There was a talk about just waiting out Easter as it was, but closing the church for visitors afterward, not letting people in to kiss the icon, guarding the entrance in turns if necessary; splitting the donations from pilgrims and living like they used to, alone with their miracle.
At night before Easter Saturday, a stormy wind got up. Osyp couldn’t fall asleep, so he went to speak to Lalibela one-on-one. She was so white now, almost transparent, very similar to the Caucasian Madonna brought out on major holidays in the city of Lalibela. The scar on her cheek was barely visible, the Virgin’s look almost quizzical. Baby Jesus, also fair-skinned, still kept his palm on her lips, not allowing her to reveal the secret. The myrrh before Easter got very thick and fragrant.
“What are you doing?”, Osyp asked. “I don’t recognize you. What do you have in mind?”
The icon didn’t respond, only, it seemed, moved a little in the twinkling of candles. They had more than enough of them all the time now–pilgrims were generous with donations. Osyp patted the Virgin on her cheek; he felt like she pricked his fingers a little. He ran his hand over his face and decided that it was time to go to bed.
On Great Saturday, he and Luka got up at the crack of dawn–they had a hard day ahead of them. The rivers of pilgrims streamed in the daybreak along the ravines visible from the hill; they filled the churchyard, occupied the streets. Luka ought to confess them all day and let them kiss the miraculous icon, and also make preparations for the Easter Vigil. Luka and Osyp planned to have a procession around the church if people would let them.
“When it calms down we should repair the shower”, Luka said, hurriedly drying himself with a towel. “The water is always either too cold or too hot.”
One could see that he and Osyp were nervous; they opened the church together and set about their work, confused. Luka went into the inner sanctuary, and Osyp decided to turn on the lights: the morning was grim, no luck with Easter peace and harmony in an astronomical sense. He loosened the chain and lowered the biggest red lamp above the iconostasis to the floor, reached into his pocket for matches, tried one and dropped it right away. Lalibela, settled now in a special flower-decorated little altar in the middle of the church, was black again, just like when he brought her here–the Virgin and her Child, as well as the angels with alligator wings above them had glossy coffee-colored skin. As if nothing happened. The slash disappeared, too. And the vase was only half-full of myrrh; it had only as much of it as it streamed down since the last evening after Osyp emptied the vase and went to bed. Luka hurried out of the sacristy sensing a nasty smell–the match Osyp dropped fell on a cheap synthetic mat and started to smolder. Together they trampled the fire and then froze silently before the icon. Without saying a word to each other, they both dropped to their knees, crossed themselves and touched the floor with their foreheads.
They went to the porch together, too. Luka carried Lalibela in his arms, covering her up from peoples’ eyes with the wide sleeves of his robe. Osyp walked a step behind, as a guardian knight ought to. Luka’s throat was tight, so it took him some time to speak. The churchyard overflowed with people; it was hard to breathe. They stood behind the fence and down below, at the foot of the hill.
“Dear friends!”, Luka began, and at that, his voice seemed to come anew, truly pastoral, god-inspired. It sounded like something was speaking from inside of him, and he said: “Dear children of mine!”, as if he was the father of the entire world. “Dear children of mine! Our Most Holy Mother of God is black again, the same as she arrived to us. Her wound healed too. Come, my dear, come those of you who are ready to accept the miracle of healing from Her.”
He raised the icon high in the air, and all the people raised their heads along with it. The entire crowd clenched firmly like a fist and turned into a ringing silence.
Translated from the Ukrainian by Oleksandra Gordynchuk