The Short First Night
After Compline, Faith and I discovered the library. Hesitating a moment in the doorway, we entered the quiet room, fragrant with lemon polish and beeswax.
Inspecting the bookshelves we noted a generous assortment of English, Russian and Greek literature. Thumbing through a few English paperbacks, I spied a book by someone called Abbess Thaisia, “Letters to a Beginner, On Giving One’s Life to God”.
“There you are! I was looking for you two!”
I almost jumped out of my skin. Abbess Everild strode into the library with Marina in tow.
“Before Evening Prayers, we will review three very important points.”
Matushka noticed me holding the book by Abbess Thaisia. “Ah yes, a very good choice, full of spiritual gems… feel free to borrow it!” Then she noticed Faith holding a thick green book.
“No, Faith, uh-uh,” Matushka shook her head, “That’s too heavy!”
“Yah, I know!” Faith agreed fervently “It weighs a ton!”
Matushka’s lips twitched. “It’s heavy Faith… in the way of not being very practical for lay people to read!”
“Oh.” Faith blushed.
Gliding over to another section of the library we hadn’t searched yet, Matushka cocked her head and pulled out a book from the shelf. I recommend this instead,” she said, and traded Faith with a book called “The Purple Mantle” by Aliki Kafetzopoulou.
Marina leaned silently against the library desk.
“Now, where were we? Ah, yes… My little litany,” smiled Matushka. “No visiting the nuns’ cells uninvited, as they will be either resting or at prayer. One of the nuns will wake you at 5 am each morning, a half hour before Morning Prayers start. After breakfast each day, you will each be assigned obediences, along with the other sisters.”
I cheekily responded to Matushka’s little litany with a heartfelt, “Lord have mercy!”
Marina snorted, but Matushka ignored us both.
What kind of holiday was this going to be? Rise at five in the morning? Horrendous! And the word obediences sounded ominously like a synonym for chores.
Matushka clapped her hands together, and inquired, “Now then, who here is a good cook?”
My eyebrows and hand shot heavensward like an arrow, “Me! I make a mean omelet!” This fact of course, was revealed with the greatest possible humility.
“Really?” marvelled Matushka, her eyes dancing and crinkling up again at the corners. “Well then, I’ll give our novices Sisters Maria and Juliana, who usually make breakfast, a morning off from cooking. You, Faith and Marina will make breakfast tomorrow! There are sixteen… no, wait, seventeen of us now. We eat at 8 am.”
“Sure, no problem Matushka,” I said proudly, adrenaline coursing through my veins. Breakfast for seventeen? How hard can that be?
“Oh boy,” sighed Faith.
Marina as usual, was as silent as the Sphinx. In my mind’s eye I pictured the Great Sphinx of Giza sitting placidly in the burning Saharan sun… decked out with multiple face piercings. I briefly wondered if Marina had trouble passing through the metal detector at airports. Yup, it was my mission to make that girl talk.
Like Compline, Evening Prayers were read in the house chapel. The lampadas’ oil lights flickered gently upon the various faces of the nuns and ancient icons. The red and blue votives added a rich, colourful glow to everything, and we took turns chanting the prayers. When Faith’s turn came she of course, read beautifully. Even Marina had a lovely voice. She was a study in candle light. With her tie-dyed cotton kerchief pulled coolly behind her ears, the lampada lights glimmered off her pierced brows, nostril, lips and chin. Although she read the prayers quietly, Marina looked like she would be more at home jamming with a punk rock garage band… not that I’m judging her or anything. In fact, I’m pretty good at not judging people.
When my turn to read came, my heart pounded as I sped through the prayers, not listening to what I was reading. All I could think of was finishing as fast as possible and taking a shower before bed. My shirt was wringing wet.
After Evening Prayers, the monastics sang a beautiful and mysterious song while venerating each of the icons and the holy relics. When they left the chapel we had our turn. Faith and Marina went before me. Matushka stood in the corner of the chapel beside the reliquary, softly singing solo, and holding her prayer rope. I went to the reliquary case and paused before looking in. Matushka glided in silently beside me, pointing quietly.
“Here is a very small piece of the True Cross; it is really just a sliver, but just think of Whom it upheld! Look, here is a relic of your saint, and here is a relic of the Great Martyr and Healer, St. Panteleimon.” Matushka pointed to another row in the reliquary, “and here is a piece of the… here is… who was martyred…., and here is… and here is……”
I felt warm all over. A peaceful feeling enveloped me. I was compelled to cross myself, and when I bent over to kiss the reliquary, an amazing fragrance, something like roses and jasmine emanated out from it. When I kissed the relics, my shell of negativity slipped off like an old snake skin. It was replaced instead; with an unusual feeling of… yes… a feeling of wonder!
“If you would like some prayer time alone with the relics during your stay, just ask. I know your mother is quite ill.”
“Thank you Matushka, bless.” I left the chapel and returned to my room without taking the coveted shower. Faith was already in bed, and I had an uninvited visitor sitting on mine. It was the Koshka.
“It seems you are the chosen one tonight,” sighed Faith.
We said goodnight to each other, and she turned over and went to sleep immediately. I turned out the bedside light, and listened to the sound of crickets and the wind sighing through the trees outside. It was so peaceful.
Nestled behind my knee, Koshka fastidiously licked her paws and bit her nails. She had begun her nightly ‘paw-nicure’!
I dropped off to sleep smiling.
© Barbara Bruce