Let There Be Cheese!
It was way too early. The sun was barely up. The birds chirped too cheerfully. I stomped out to the car and flung my bags into the trunk. As Mom hugged me hard, I felt her make the sign of the cross on my back. Then she kissed me. “I love you. I’ll miss you. Have fun for me.”
The long ride to the the way airport was unremarkable until our car shuddered violently. Dad pulled over, “Feels like a flat,” he sighed.
I got out, leaned against the dusty vehicle and watched a lone tumbleweed cavort half-heartedly up the road and vanish over the crest of the hill.
Dad ran a rough hand through his short, dark hair. “Well, sometimes odd things can happen on the way to a monastery.” He looked over at me, perhaps expecting an answer, but the only response came from the literal chirping of crickets from the roadside sagebrush. After changing the flat, Dad was unusually quiet for the rest of the drive and we arrived at the airport all too soon. Swiftly hugging me goodbye, he made me promise to phone soon.
I boarded my flight, and as the plane taxied down the runway it lurched several times during takeoff. Automatically wanting to cross myself, I suddenly felt embarrassed to do this in public. People might think I was weird, or churchy, or even worse… scared!
After take-off, my seatmate, an older woman, with unblinking eyes fixed straight ahead, rigidly clutched a paperback book. Her harsh, staccato voice commanded (I wasn’t sure to whom), “Just sit back and relax. Like me. You know, I’ve been flying for years, and statistically, planes are safer than cars! But, then again, if it’s one’s time to go, then it’s one’s time to go. We can’t cheat the old Grim Reaper.”
Wow. Nice pep talk, I thought… and noticed she was “reading” her book – upside down.
She turned to stare at me and frowned. An interrogation began. “How old are you?… Your name. What is your name? And where are you going all by yourself?”
I answered vaguely, and redirected questions back to her. Maybe she would stop grilling me, and just talk about herself. Thankfully she did. Incessantly!
Eventually, she bent down and rustled around in the large bag at her feet becoming mercifully quiet. Curious, I glanced over and caught her enjoying a sandwich. A tiny yellow dribble of mustard had escaped onto her chin. I turned away quickly and stared out my window.
We passed over a mighty river which wound like a pearly-silver ribbon into the horizon. An endless expanse stretched below, and the far horizon was dotted with violet mountains. Even though it was summer, some of the rugged peaks below had snow on them. Something else caught my eye! I spied a secret lake beneath us. It was perfectly heart-shaped, and as blue as a robin’s egg. I imagined no human being could ever have set foot there! Staring at it as long as possible, I tried to commit every detail to memory. Maybe I would paint that scene from memory some day? When we flew out of range, I felt a queer pang of loss, knowing I would never see it again.
Having finished her sandwich, my seatmate fidgeted. She seemed to be gearing up for another inquisition, so I swiftly popped in my ear buds, cranked the music volume, and closed my eyes pretending to sleep. Surprisingly, I did fall asleep, and in what seemed like an instant, we had arrived at our destination.
Aunt Katherine, Dad’s older sister had arranged to meet me at the airport. I heard her call out before she ambushed me in a gigantic bear-hug.
We hadn’t seen each other in awhile, but she looked just the same. Her jet black hair and large hazel eyes looked exactly like Dad’s. She even had one of his dimples when she smiled. I kind of missed Dad at that moment, and felt I may have been a bit harsh with him recently. Aunt Kat held me at arm’s length, inspecting me from head to toe. Nodding in approval she commented on how much I had grown (really?), grabbed one of my travel bags, and walked me briskly to her car.
Aunt Kat crossed herself as we turned onto the main highway and chattered as we sped along. She quizzed me about Mom’s upcoming operation and recovery. Shaking her head in disbelief when I confessed I didn’t know much about it, I felt slightly ashamed.
As we drove, Aunt Kat said her daughter; my cousin Faith was also visiting the convent too and waiting for me. She had arrived a couple of days earlier. Although we hadn’t seen each other for a couple of years, we occasionally kept in touch, but Faith hadn’t posted anything about her upcoming trip on social media.
Faith and I were almost the same age, and in the past, when Uncle John, Aunt Kat and Faith came to visit, we had a blast hanging out together. Like my best friend Ksusha, Faith was very pious, and serious, but she also had a great sense of humour.
Two hours later, Aunt Kat left the highway and we bumped along a rural gravel road for another half hour. There was no other traffic except us on the road. Turning another blind corner, this time Aunt Kat inexplicably slowed down, pulling gently over to the farthest side of the road, and came to almost a complete stop! A second later, a small red sports car sped around the hairpin turn, and slid head-on, directly into our lane! It skidded, barely missed us, fishtailed and raced off again, leaving us choking in a cloud of dust. Aunt Kat crossed herself and whispered a brief prayer of thanks.
“Wow…! Were we ever lucky! Aunt Kat, how did you know that car was coming around the corner into our lane?”
“I didn’t know, and it wasn’t luck,” said Aunt Kat matter-of-factually, “It was our Guardian Angels who made us slow down. God’s eye is on the sparrow, and even the hairs of our head are numbered! How He protects us! Glory to God!”
Sparrows indeed! Overwhelmed by the close call, I shivered. Goose bumps the size of eggs rose on my arms and legs.
A little while later we drove through the Convent of the Annunciation’s sky-blue gates. Aunt Kat crossed herself when we entered the property, and we slowly continued along yet another winding road. We passed the modest convent church which seemed to sit suspended upon a field of pink and white wildflowers. The church was white with azure trim, and looked like it belonged in an old-fashioned painting. The other side of the road was a dark tangle of birch, alder, and scrubby pine trees.
“Look! There’s the guesthouse,” Aunt Kat pointed excitedly to a rustic building, nestled near the edge of the dark woods. “Most pilgrims stay there when visiting the convent.”
“Pilgrims?” In my mind’s eye I saw a jolly old Quaker Oats man in big-buckled shoes, leaning casually against the guest house doorway waving a wooden spoon in greeting. I had a sudden yen for oatmeal, and…
As if she could read my mind, Aunt Kat interrupted my wild imaginings, “Pilgrims are visitors, you twit. The guest house is self-contained; it has 5 bedrooms and even has a small communal kitchen. The shower is always cold though. Brrrr! It’s very rare for any lay-women to be invited to stay in the convent itself. But you will be this time. You might even have your own cell.”
That figures, I’d get a jail cell.
Again, as if Aunt Kat heard my sarcastic thoughts, “A cell is a small monastic bedroom, you know.”
“Yeh, I knew that,” I mumbled sheepishly.
The ever-twisting road finally stopped in front of the convent. It was a large, warm, earthy coloured building. A pergola of fragrant purple flowers cascaded over the front stairs.
“Here we are!” Aunt Kat announced the oh-so-obvious, and yanked a headscarf out from her handbag. She reminded me to put mine on too. I groaned and obliged. One had to pick one’s battles carefully with Aunt Kat.
Although I am used to dry heat, it was uncomfortably humid. A trickle of sweat already ran down my back. Bring on the jail cell I thought, grabbing my bags and slamming the car door shut with my foot. A black and white cat sauntered over, meowing a noisy greeting, and rubbed against my legs. I ignored it, but the silly thing wouldn’t stop meowing at me.
Suddenly the convent door banged open! My cousin Faith flew out, down the stairs, and flung herself into Aunt Kat’s warm embrace. To my surprise I felt a small pang of envy. Extracting herself from her mom, Faith hugged me too.
“Hey Faith!” I smiled.
“Hey yourself, cuz!” Faith laughed.
From under the blooming cloud of sweet-scented purple flowers, emerged a solitary figure dressed in black, wearing what I later learned was called a ryasa.
Aunt Kat cried out happily, “Hello again Matushka!” and went joyfully to receive Abbess Everild’s blessing. Aunt Kat turned and introduced me to the abbess while I staggered up the convent stairs with my bags. Faith tried to help me but I brushed her away impatiently. The black and white cat darted in front of me on the top stair, and tripped me. On purpose.
Stopping an angry scowl, I sighed and plunked my luggage down onto the front porch. I followed Aunt Kat’s example and went to receive the abbess’ blessing. Abbess Everild’s merry brown eyes crinkled up with laugh lines at the corners, I held out my hands for a blessing, and caught my breath. Something special shone out from her face. It startled me. A wisp of white hair which had escaped the abbess’ apostolnik waved gently in the breeze and she wore an old, wide, black leather belt. Matushka also wore a pectoral cross like Father Paul, our parish priest.
With her pectoral cross, Abbess Everild made the Sign of the Cross over me and held out her cross for me to kiss. “May God bless you, dear one! Welcome! Welcome to our convent! My goodness, you look so much like your mother!”
My Mom and Abbess Everild knew each other in person? I didn’t know that!
The abbess checked her watch and said, “You and your cousin Faith will share a cell together. There’s still time to settle in before tea and Compline.” Then, looking down at the cat, Matushka’s lips twitched. She glanced up at me, “Please forgive Koshka for tripping you. She’s really quite the rascal.”
“Sorry, what’s the name of your cat?” I asked.
“She’s the convent’s cat,” said Matushka.
“But you called her…?”
Matushka said, “Koshka. Koshka is cat, in Russian.”
I scratched my head, “So your cat’s name is Cat?”
“What’s that?” asked Aunt Kat carrying one of my bags inside.
Matushka’s lips twitched again. Faith giggled.
Wow. Did it just get weird in here? “No, no Aunt Kat, I was asking about the cat.”
“Ah, the Koshka!” nodded Aunt Kat.
“Yes, the Koshka.”
“As I was saying,” said Matushka with a twinkle, “Koshka is quite the rascal! Faith will show you around and help you settle.” With that, the abbess turned and disappeared down a hall. With a flick of her tail, Koshka trotted along behind her like a little dog.
So this was a convent! The dining room walls were painted a warm rich, coffee crema… sort of what the foam looks like on my Dad’s morning espressos. It was a calm, cozy, colour. The eastern wall had a beautiful icon corner. There was a large icon of a saint whom I had never seen before. Faith would probably know who it was. In the centre of the refectory dining room was long wooden table scrubbed spotlessly clean, and the room was as neat as a pin. One could have easily eaten off the floor itself it was so clean. An analogion stood near the head of the table. Hanging baskets of lush greenery competed for space near large sunny windows, allowing a mellow golden summer light to filter in.
“You girls get settled,” Aunt Kat sighed. “I’m going to sit a spell and see you ladies at tea. I think I’ll leave right after Compline.” Aunt Kat and Uncle John lived a two hours’ drive away from the convent, and she hoped to be home tonight before dark.
Faith grabbed one of my bags. This time I welcomed her help. As we walked to our cell, our little room, I told Faith of the near accident we were so lucky to avoid. Faith crossed herself saying, “Lucky schmucky- that was yours or Mama’s angel! You know cuz, your guardian angel could hit you over the head with a two by four, and you probably still wouldn’t get it!”
I ignored her remark, and seeing my bed immediately dove onto it. I ripped off my headscarf and flung it across the room, grunting, “Ugh!” It made a wet thud when it hit the far wall. Sweat streamed down my back. I changed my shirt.
Faith left her scarf on and giggled, “Sissy!”
“Call me Sister Sissy!” I snarled.
Faith helped me unpack and showed me where everything was. Our cell was cool, facing the rear of the convent, and the window looked out onto a woodsy area with tangled vines fronted with graceful, slender birches. There was a little icon corner on the eastern wall, and a small analogion stood before it with what looked to be Faith’s prayer book.
“Where’s the mirror?” I wondered aloud.
Faith hooted, and then I remembered there are no mirrors in a convent. At least my bad hair days could be hidden under a scarf! In the humidity, wisps of my hair sprung out everywhere in auburn coils.
“You’ll meet the rest of the sisters at tea and Compline,” Faith said, flicking her long, jet black single braid behind her. “There’s only one other visitor. Her name’s Marina. She arrived yesterday, and is staying with us in the convent. Her cell is upstairs. Don’t know where she’s from. Bit of a cold fish; won’t talk much. Oh! I’m so glad you’re here!” Faith hesitated, “Sorry to hear about your mom. Poor Auntie Lexa! Don’t worry; she’s in God’s hands! Did you know the relics of the Great-Martyr and Healer St. Panteleimon are here?”
What had Faith heard about Mom? I mumbled back something in response, and my thoughts turned briefly to Marina, the other visitor. Marina was probably forced to be here, like me. My stomach rumbled hungrily, and visions of what a convent tea might be danced in my mind. Probably stale bread and water. Then, with the dreaded head scarf back on again, Faith pulled me through a maze of hallways back to the refectory. I brought along a small package from our parish sisterhood, and a one gallon container of olive oil. The oil was a gift from my parents for the convent’s lampadas. The olive oil was heavy, and with each step, it banged into my legs. I imagined I was a bruised little mouse, dressed in a sweaty headscarf, hopelessly travelling an endless labyrinth… and… if we ever found the dining room, a tasty reward of cheese for tea would be most fitting.
A little bell sounded and standing quietly beside the dining table stood over a dozen nuns of various shapes, sizes and ages. How would I ever get to know all their names? Some gazed at me, some gazed past me, and a couple beamed right at me.
Then I saw the girl who had to be Marina. She stood there frowning and had a face full of piercings. Because of her expression, I felt an instant kinship and tried to catch her eye, but failed. What I would give to know her story! I turned and gave the gifts to Matushka Everild, and the abbess inclined her head gratefully. The nuns sang a short prayer and we all sat down to tea.
And, oh my goodness! Lo’ and behold… there was cheese!
© Barbara Bruce
Chapter 3: The Short, First Night