Tuesday, December 12, 2006
A hard icon to bear
THE BLACK ICON
Sophia, now with plenty of money for household expenses and food, decided she'd better go on a vitpust, a pilgrimage to the nearby shrine of the Black Virgin. She put Katerina in charge of the household for the day, and with Genyk in tow, set out towards the shrine, fifteen kilometres away.
Sophia and Genyk walked through the main byway of the village, past rows of thatched, ochre-coloured houses, chickens and pigs snuffling around in picketed front yards; birds twittering in slim, windbreak aspens .
Genyk, dressed up in his knee pants and stiff brown shoes, was all questions. "Why are we going to the shrine, Mother? What is a shrine anyway"
"We are going to make a tribute to the Blessed Virgin to repay God's kindness to us."
"Can't we go see God himself?"
"No what kind of a question is that? God is invisible. He is a spirit."
"Is the Virgin Mary a spirit too?
"Well...yes. I suppose you can say that."
"Well then, how will we be able to see her?"
"We can see her picture. We can see her icon, once we get to the holy place. She left her picture in a high tree after showing herself to a woodcutter while he was drinking water from a spring."
"That's a funny place to leave your picture, " Genyk argued.
"No more questions now," Sophia said, leading the boy out to the dusty, rail - fenced road that led to the shrine.
Genyk was sill curious about the relationship between saints and peope. Were saints like people? Were people like saints?
"What?" from an impatient Sophia.
"Do saints have a "thing"?
"What do you mean, a 'thing'?"
"You know, like boys and girls.
"Whatever makes you ask a question like that?"
"Well, everytime I draw a picture of a saint or angel on a iece of paper, I always show him having a "thing' between his legs. Katarina always laughs at this. Why?"
A hint of a chuckle appeared on Sopha's fine lips. She finally settled the question in an arbitrary fashion. "Saints and angels don't do what we humans do. They don't need 'things'." And she quickly added, "Come on. No more questions now."
The road cut through a quilwork of bright green fields alternating with squares of black, freshly-plowed loam. White-pantalooned men folowed their tired, saggy horses ploughs cutting rills into the rich earth. Stocky brown women hoed the green areas. Sophia and Genyk shuffled throguh the road's powdery dust, Genyk every so often pausing to wipe his new shoes, surprised at the pristine shine underneath.
The road now led into a woods, and the pilgrims injoyed the cool smell of pine and ancient gun-grey oaks.
Genyk was getting the hunger bites and Sophia led him off the road a bit, towards a tree-covered knoll. They stopped at an Easter-time dugout, many of these around the villages, tables of sod, seats carved into the earth.
Something pagan about these sites, perhaps tribute places to an ancient Orpheus, but in Christian tradition, these were places to eat church-blessed breakfasts in the open air at Easter time, the whole family taking part. The ritual commemorated Christ's rising from the earthen tomb. Genyk recalled plrevious Easters when he and the family ate slpiced eggs and fragrant sausage in dugouts similar to this one.
Sohia and her son now sat in one of these earthen dining spots, the woman opening a kerchiefed bundle, taking out black bread and backfat. They ate quietly and with relish, only the forest sounds adding to their ruminating.
Afterwards, they stretched out for a nap in the clover. Genyk was just drifting off when Sophia took him by the hand, raised him up. "Not too far now. Let's get back on the road."
A metallic sun, burnished by gritty cloud layers, hung high and aloof from the shrine's oniontopped chapel by the time Genyk and Sophia rached the holy place. They stood on the base of the chapel's supporting hill and looked at the impressive litlle edifice: Byzantine, mostly wood, layer upon layer of skirt-like cornices over a square base; gilded belfry spiralling up in a teardrop whorl, the apex topped by a solid, motion-arresting cross.
Along the hill, a little brook trickled its oblique way down to the spot where Sopha and Genyk stood, the "sweet afton" gradually disappearing in a clump of willows and shrubs to the pilgrims' left. Sophia pointed to a square wooden structure to the right, apparently the source of the stream. "That's where it happened, long ago, Genyk. That's where the Virgin Mary showed herself to the holy woodcutter."
Shifting her eyes from the chapel to the shack, Genyk was unimpressed. "It's a funy-shped building," he decided.
It looks just like an outhouse."
Sophia was apalled. She glared at the boy through narrowed eyes and then, almost in an atavistic gesture, hauled her hand back and struck Genyk full in the face. He saw stars.
"You are a dirty little runt to talk like that about a holy place."
Geny, lately prone to saying the wrong thing, no matter how well intentioned, nursed his cheek and held back the tears. Who was this crazy woman who purported to be his mother?
They crossed the brook after Sophia had taken a little of its water in a earthen jar. They made for the chapel.
Inside, it was cool and calm, silence only occasionally broken by the barely -sensed crack of settling hardwood pews Along the walls, intense-eyed icons jealously demanded individual worship, their fine-lined haloed features designed to strike awe and piety into the beholder.
Directly in front of Genyk and Sophia, stood a whie wedding cake of an altar, imposing by itself, but very pale compared to the icons of the Black Madonna over a side altar to the right. Here, the Black Virgin's seemingly mascaraed eyes stared gloomily under a dark, silver-striped cowl. The Virgin cradled a a miniature twelve-year-old in her arms.
To either side of the the two heads, the cyrillic characters MP and XP stood framed by thorn wreaths and instruments of torture, Christ's invevitable fate.
It was the face of the Virgin that held Sophia's attention. Sophia had been to this chapel countless times but she had never seen the Virgin quite so dark, so menacing, so scowling. Candle soot, dust, yes, but there was definitely a scowl on the Virgin's face. Heretofore, the Icon's features had been a pleasant, Mediterranean flesh tone.. But now the Madonna's face seemed so dark that her wide-eyed, cowled features were barely recognizable. Sophia looked up toward the domed ceiling. Maybe the stained glass windows were not letting in enough light.
But no, that couldn't be . A rising, lead-panelled Christ was flooding the chapel with varicoloured rays. Sophia began to feel something like outright dread. There had been talk in Kolomya county that the miracualous Virgin often predicted the times. Once the Madonna's face turned darker than its usual Coptic shade, evil was predicted for the region. It was a grimy, burnt, hell-scorched ehd Madonna. This, of course, was all old wives' talk and superstition, and Sophia tried not to dwell on the point, just to to reassure herself. But the more she stared at the icon, the more frightened she became. She crossed herself, feeling a shudder go through her. She had to pray. And the boy had to pray too.
Sophia cast a glance at Genyk, the boy busy looking around the chapel, taking in the frescoes, tempera work, the age-browned bible illustrations. She tugged at his head to stare at the front and motioned to Genyk that he should follow her example, to begin to pray. Genyk complied, crossing himself three times and reciting a sibilant Hail Mary to the black, scowling Virgin.
Finally, the two fo them moved out into the aisle, bowed low in front of the sacristy, and made for the gright, sunny afternoon.
On the way home, Sophia puzzled Genyk by keeping very near him and telling the boy that whe would aways love him and Katerina no matter what came. And asking him if he understood.
...........end Black Icon, Chapter ten