Ksenia and I were baptised together as infants. Not only are we water sisters, but we’re also best friends. Tonight her family arrived during the reading of The Six Psalms, and stood quietly at the back of the church until the candles were lit again. Glancing around at the small crowd of parishioners I noted they were all “the usual suspects” as Dad calls them, meaning those who come regularly to evening vigil services.
A movement off to the side caught my eye. In the golden glow of candlelight, smokey tendrils of incense swirled like giant living halos about the holy icons before wafting upwards, like prayers to heaven. When the beams of the setting sun pierced through the window and lit the gold tessera on a mosaic cross like fiery embers, I felt an odd pang by its beauty.
The service continued along peacefully until halfway through the Great Doxology hymn, when an ancient soprano (one of the usual suspects), ignored the choir director and fervently crescendoed off-key. Her hat resembled a giant eggplant impaled with a feather, and it quivered precisely in time to the vibrato.
I couldn’t help it. Shoulders shaking, I mutely giggled until Ksenia’s sharp elbow plowed into my ribs. I sighed silently, “Lord have mercy” and directed my attention again to the service, wishing for the millionth time that I could be a little more dignified and accepting like her.
When dad and I got home later, mom was already sound asleep.
The morning light peeked through my curtains. I yawned and watched the tiny dust motes dance to the ceiling in the sunbeams.
It was too quiet. Mom, always an early riser in the past, still wasn’t up. She had been kind of “off” lately, and probably just needed extra vitamins? Vaguely alarmed, I instinctively reeled in my imagination and heard Dad puttering in the kitchen. A delightful aroma of coffee filtered into my room. I tiptoed past my icon corner quickly crossing myself, and quietly opened the door. The coast was clear, so it was easy to sneak a small cup of coffee in stealth mode. Mom and Dad disapproved of my occasional partaking, saying it stunted my growth. But it didn’t matter much to me, I’m kind of short already.
Holding the warm mug, my thoughts wandered. Come tomorrow morning, I would be flying away to an “all-inclusive” vacation at a convent. Not my idea of a summer holiday, especially as Ksenia couldn’t come. Her grandparents were arriving earlier than usual from Russia for their annual visit.
My “pilgrimage” to the convent was something Mom and Dad had suddenly cooked up. It was quickly blessed by Fr. Paul, then sealed with approval by the abbess. How they swung it all in such a short time, I couldn’t guess.
Dad had said it would be a good time for me to re-energize… and cousin Faith will be there too. Apparently my Aunt Kat had joined the conspiracy.
Mom was too tired for church today and looked sad she couldn’t join us. On our way out the door, I kissed her hollow cheek awkwardly, “See you soon.”
Today was the feast day of the Holy Apostles Saints Peter and Paul. It was a festive service, and the choir sang a lovely new melody of the Cherubic Hymn. As if on cue, at Now lay aside all earthly cares, a little boy brandished a toy monster truck and drove it noisily through the candle sand at the pannykhida table,”vroom-vrooming” at the top of his lungs. Before his horrified mother could scoop him up, he grabbed a candle, singed an eyebrow and screamed until my ears nearly bled. At least he was okay, but I rolled my eyes and shook my head in disbelief. Some peoples’ kids! Ksenia poked me in the ribs again. I wished she’d quit doing that.
After the service, Father Paul blessed my trip with the customary prayers and sprinkled me with a LOT of holy water. He was always happy blessing trips, and took great pleasure in the quantity of holy water used.
Dad tugged one of my auburn braids affectionately. “Come on, you’re good to go!” Picking up our prosphora from the candle table he nodded to Father Paul, “Congratulations on your Saint’s Day Father! God grant you many years!”
“Thanks Victor,” Father Paul smiled warmly at Dad. “And please greet Alexa. She’s especially in all our prayers.”
Father Paul turned back to me. His kind eyes crinkled up good-naturedly at the corners, “Have a good trip! Greetings to Abbess Everild from the parish. Thank you for being the sundries-bearer to the convent. There’s a small donation package of what-nots from the Sisterhood for the nuns… things which the monastery has difficulty in obtaining on its own. It shouldn’t be too hard to travel with.”
I nodded mutely as Father Paul ascended the ambo and disappeared through the Royal Doors into the altar.
Ksenia collected the spent wax candle stubs, and smoothed over the toy truck’s tread tracks from the pannykhida table’s candle-sand dunes. Rushing over, I hugged her fiercely, “Ksusha (her nickname), I wish you could come. I’ll be gone for almost a whole month!”
“I know,” she said sorrowfully, her sea-gray eyes brimming. “I wish I could go too! I’ll miss you terribly.” Turning away quickly, Ksenia furtively rubbed her eyes, cleared her throat and fiddled with the colourful kerchief sitting askew over her brown bob.
Back home, neither Mom nor I were hungry for the BBQ brunch after service. I was pleased Ksenia had been invited. Dad and Ksusha did most of the talking, eating and laughing, while Mom and I quietly toyed with the pasta and fruit salad. I wouldn’t touch the hamburger. I abhor hamburger and was stunned Dad and Mom forgot I didn’t eat red meat anymore… and hadn’t for quite some time.
After helping me with the lunch dishes, Ksenia and I sat in the backyard under the old gnarly apple tree. She chattered merrily away while I silently and viciously ripped up tufts of grass and flung them. Ksenia and I had spent every single summer together, since well, since we could crawl! What a time for her grandparents to come and visit.
“I can help with packing if you want,” she volunteered.
“Come on, silly,” Ksusha dragged me to my room and weeded out the extra clothes and stuff I was going to bring. “There!” she smiled, satisfied with her work. “Now you can close your suitcase without having to jump on it.”
The sun was setting when we pulled up to Ksusha’s house. Not one for long goodbyes, she gave me a quick bear hug and whispered, “May an angel go with you.”
© Barbara Bruce