I’ve set aside the morning hours for writing, when the sun rushes into my room in a great bright column that crashes over the edge of my table and pools luminous all across the wide stone floor. For that is when it’s brightest, and it’s when your head is clearest, too. I intend to write regularly, because regularity is the very thing that matters most. Father Basil taught us that. Repetition is the true engine of the world, he taught, and evil comes from chaos, which idles the engine and causes confusion. But my head hasn’t grown accustomed to thinking just yet. Nor have my fingers yet taken to writing. Which is why I’ll strive to capture what it is I have to say in the fewest words possible, especially since all these thoughts come to me just exactly as they please. I have no power over them – details awaken in my memory with no warning and form elaborate sentences at the absolute worst moments, when my hands are full of different dyes and I can’t reach for anything to write with, or when it’s my turn to play with the children, a thing I really like to do, in fact I prefer it to every other occupation.
But since accepting the need to write – this was after Father Basil’s death, when it seemed all would crumble and be ruined – I’ve lost my old peace and know it to be lost forever. Not even sleep can grant me rest now – even my prayers are in tatters, fluttering with nothing underneath. I can no longer dive into them like one would into a snowdrift. Now the sentences can come at any moment, banging down the door of my poor brain, demanding an audience. Only after I’ve written them down do I get any peace, and then they’re gone.
In his great wisdom Father Basil must have known that despite writing slowly and lacking in words I am still the most suited out of all of us to perform the task. While he was still conscious, in his muted and diminished voice and in front of everyone, he relieved me of my numerous responsibilities so that I might have time to write. He unburdened me of cooking, a hated obligation, and from cleaning. He had all the paper in the Borderland brought to me and all the available writing tools, though many of them had dried out and could no longer be used. I do have a whole box of colored pencils. When we discovered moisture in our stores after last winter, I went through the reams of mildewed paper, sheet by sheet. Not much of it was able to be saved. But that paper was old already anyway, from before the Repartition – it even tasted sort of different when I bit off a clean corner and investigated it by means of mastication. It tasted like Communion – the purest and holiest and most refined of all Communions.
I think of what I write here as just a first draft, so I replaced those unsalvageable reams with a box of strange long sheets of paper printed on one side, almost illegible with age, and now when I reach for one I don’t even concern myself with which side’s up and which is down, I just write. It must hail from a golden age, since it’s been used on one face only, neglecting – a haughtiness today incomprehensible – the reverse, clean, unwritten white page that wallows in the sin of sloth and inactivity. How could those sides be granted silence while their reverses bear witness to events, agreements, plans and ideas . . . A variety of words are noted down upon those quadrangles. Then on the right side, figures. For example:
Starting balance . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2,355.89
Debt limit . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5,000.00
Total discretionary transactions . . . . . . . . . . . 11,812.00
I don’t know what it all means.
And so I write, two hours every morning, warming my feet in that pool of light, having submerged myself in the dry and bracing air that flows over the river from the steppe. At times – but not often – my concentration is disturbed by cannon fire as our garrison aims over at the other side, mostly just in case, I think, since those on the other side have long ceased to bother us. On the table I have the treasured possessions Father Basil had entrusted to me: the scissors, the colored pencils, the pen I myself make ink for, the candles, as well as something I received from her, I mean Udina, before she disappeared. It’s a beautiful and complicated thing, made of eleven slender sticks bound together at the bottom by a metal wire and connected by a thick white paper, now unfortunately sullied. But when you spread out the little sticks, the paper unfurls, and you can see across it these expressive designs in black ink, which must be the symbols of some exotic writing. I unfold and fold this object when I lose my train of thought – like now – and it helps. It is a handy and attractive object. It gives you pleasure to hold it in your hand. You don’t really need to know what it was used for in order to feel that pleasure.
Like all of us, I wound up here thanks to Father Basil, although I couldn’t say precisely how it happened. I was only a few years old, and all I can recall – as though through a fog – is the old woman who took care of me. Father Basil told me it was my grandmother, who died. He often told us how after the Dimming came great chaos and collapse. But before that happened, people had a tremendous capacity to move about and even speak with one another at a distance. Long ago, in the cellar, he demonstrated a device that, when a person wound its crank, could bring illumination to a fixed little bubble, but then that small machine quit working, and the transparent bulb broke.
At any rate, the war and chaos destroyed such things, or they were stolen by the savages, and then everything but everything was gone. Father Basil would sometimes sit with us and sketch a range of different things that apparently people used to own. Some of them were so strange that I thought – may he forgive me – they might be fictions. But then Father Basil stopped dispensing those lessons intended to remind us – and himself – of what that world used to be like. He would tell us every day that, living in the Borderland, we had the most sacred of duties: to defend our civilization against the barbarians, and that instead of yearning for the past, we ought to concentrate on what there is. And what there is is our Borderland, the Prut River that separates the civilized world from chaos, as well as what remains of the garrison, where every so often someone will sink some straggler in a rowboat trying to come across the river. Above all there is the Holy Virgin, Mother and Queen of the World. It is Her we unfurl in the face of Chaos every year. And so it shall continue, until the civilized world is once more reunited under Her guidance, and it all goes back to how it was before the Repartition.
In the beginning, I was a Kalfaktor, handling odd jobs – all initiates begin this way – alongside the other boys like me whom Father Basil had taken in, and we supplied the Borderland with firewood, which was already difficult to come by since migrants had cut down all the trees. We’d set out in little packs and head off south, and there, far from here, at the foot of the mountains, we would chop what we could, while the older boys floated the logs back down to the Borderland, on the current of the Prut. This project took all summer. Then, in winter, which is sad and oppressive here, Father Basil taught us to read and dye thread and embroider weave. As I found physical labor taxing, I would look forward to those winter nights when we would all be gathered around the fire, exercising minds and hands. And we would learn by heart all of Father Basil’s prayers.
He once saw me carrying wood down to the stores and took pity on me. I don’t know what I did to draw his favor, but he unburdened me of that hard work and assigned me to dyeing, and then to writing – perhaps it wasn’t anything I did. Father Basil always looked on everyone with great benevolence, squinting slightly, which is no doubt a sign of sympathy. He had me look after the fires in our ovens. I ran up and down the stairs in the mornings, digging out the ashes and scattering them around the fields, though the west wind threw gray clouds of ash directly into my face, so that I went about filthy, and was a laughing stock.
Back then the Borderland was more populated than it is today. There were still groups of people dragging up here from the west, and some would even make their way to us, although we’d never let them in, only offering our stables and our lawns. Father Basil didn’t want them interfering with our minds. Those people would look at our high bank and at that other one across the river, wild and flat, incredulous, until finally they’d just turn around and go back to wherever they’d come from. On that side, too, there was a greater commotion back then. Foreigners could come up from the steppe, and when they did, they were like herds of dead-tired animals, and they would try to cross the river at any cost. But shots would fly at them from the garrison, and they would scatter in great haste. The ones from the west, our people, who spoke our language or at least something like it, would stand out on the high riverbank, and it was as if the sight of those flat, monotonous terrains on the other side brought them back to reality: this was the end, there was no point in going further – here was the seam of the world, long since torn asunder, never to be mended again. So they would stay with us for a while, and then they’d slouch away in disappointment. In the evenings they’d light fires and make a great big circle around the whole of our courtyard. Songs in many voices all together rose up to heaven, to the Holy Virgin and Child. Meals were served from great big pots atop the driest of the wood. Back then I thought the smell of pea soup was the most beautiful smell in the whole world.
I don’t know if it’s my memory that pictures those scenes as more together and pure and close. There was more of everything then – the sun, the light, the smells, the details, even objects. The linen we wove with was sturdier and smoother, the colors of the thread more vivid, the pencils less worn out and the paper brighter and more resistant to wear. The knives were sharper, and the doorknobs would spring their latches right where they were supposed to, the lids fit the pots better, and even some shoes still had fine strong laces, instead of floppy strings made out of linen hemp. I could go on. Something strange has happened to our world now – it’s like it’s broken, like it’s lost its freshness. Like it’s rotted.
But I can’t deny – for this was taught to us on winter nights by Father Basil – that we can only see the world through our own senses, only through our own selves, and of course, I’m now twenty years older, and from a lost child I have grown into a man, a guardian of the Borderland – a member of this holy family, admittedly much smaller than before, but still a family; and I have changed so much I sometimes think I’m someone else entirely. So perhaps it would be best if I had no desire to understand the world, limiting myself instead to my own sensations.
But all the same I consider that Father Basil did make one mistake: he didn’t require we take regular note of what he told us. Now I feel that certain teachings of his will fade into oblivion. Our steward Mateus the Second, whom a dying Father Basil designated as the one to carry on our winter studies, was broken by the void left after Father Basil’s death, vanishing last spring, like several other of our brothers. Those who remained turned further inward, and now it’s hard for us to be together in that good way we used to. Sometimes I see how many of Father Basil’s tales I’ve forgotten, how his stories get mixed up in my head, how many important details I have lost, little asides he would make during the most ordinary of our daily tasks. For instance I no longer recall the names of the Lord’s siblings. I only know that there were twelve of them, the same number as the books in our library.
When Father Basil died, which happened shortly before dawn, at the very start of January, at the nadir of that long, gloomy, difficult winter three years ago, we took his heart out from his body and placed it in a box, burying the rest in a pretty spot by the wall outside, so that he might have a good view of the west he had yearned for so long. However, the next evening three of the brothers, Marek the Fourth, Mateus the First and Marek the First, opened the box and cut right into the heart. They had in mind Father Basil’s words: ‘The Lord’s cross is deep within my heart.’ And indeed, in his heart, larger than the hearts of others – so said Mateus the First, who knew about such things – they found something akin to a small cross, made of something similar to bone. And our hearts soared, for we knew this to be evidence of Father Basil’s holy soul. In the darkness, in the cold, in our isolation, we decided to investigate the entire buried body. And this then yielded a real miracle – in the gall bladder there were three round objects, which we recognized as emblems of the Trinity. Inside Father Basil we also found, made of his flesh, a crown of thorns, a whip and nails. We guard these relics closely now.
With Brother Mateus the Second’s departure all our knowledge of the weather and the calendar vanished as well. This was a painful loss, and since it occurred we haven’t really been able to calculate the spring and summer solstices. Instead we work by approximation based merely on what we see. The Great Night of the Rebirth is now celebrated by day, when the ice over the Prut has melted, and we celebrate the Birth once it’s become so dark and cold that it is unbearable, and we are drowning in sadness and despair. But our most important holiday – Standard Day – is commemorated when the world is most open to sun and life, when the sky is clear and friendly, and the transparent wind carries our images far across the steppe.
In Father Basil’s time, this was truly a great holiday, the whole garrison joining in, many divisions firing their weapons all day long in honor of the Standard. On the other side of the river, the savages took fright and were astonished. Father Basil would claim – and it almost seems to me that I saw it myself, as a child – that once the barbarian hordes fell upon the earth in holy terror the Standard shone bright, almost like a second sun. But for the last few years the savages have not come as gladly – they have scattered, evidently giving up, although of course now it would be so much simpler to take a boat across the river.
This is why I have to break off my writing from time to time, because, as I mentioned, the Standard Day preparations are already under way. I need to check on the dyeing of the threads, see if the linen is soft enough and whether its different shades all complement each other. The Standard became damaged last year, and this past horrible winter we repaired it, centimeter by centimeter. Certain sections had faded or decayed from the moisture and had to be replaced. We decided to make the most of this, and took the opportunity to enrich the Standard with innovative elements. Of course I also have to take care of our two children.
Our children are Peter and Paul, except that Paul’s a girl. I was the one to name them; until that time they’d been known by their barbarian names, which were hard to pronounce or remember. I wanted them to have civilized names so that they could fit in our world a little easier. I called their mother Christopher, but she wouldn’t go by it, and it sometimes even made her laugh. What she called herself was Udina, and whether we liked it or not, we were eventually forced to do the same. This was a shame because Christopher, as Father Basil told us, was a great man, and he carried the Lord across a river when He was still young and before He had learned to walk on water. I felt proud I had glimpsed the similarity between their stories, because Udina, too, had come to us in early spring, right before the Day of Rebirth, carrying children on her back and stomach, wrapped up in solid cloth. She had moved from one ice floe to the next and only by the skin of her nose escaped drowning in the freezing water as she made her way up to our bank. I still don’t know why those in the garrison did not shoot at her. Perhaps they were drunk, or maybe they got scared upon seeing such a strange figure. By the time she made it to us, she was almost lifeless, as well as very dirty. The children were in the same state. A terrified clutch, blue from the cold and from hunger. Those in the garrison, on learning what had happened and that we had some foreigners with us, came quickly in order to reclaim them and take their lives, this being the law of the Borderland: no man from the other bank is ever permitted to stay. It was I who took full personal responsibility and managed to convince them that these three people, only barely still among the living, posed no threat whatsoever to the civilized world, and that as soon as their health was restored, we would get them on a boat and send them right back where they came from.
Udina was the only grown woman I had ever seen. So I can now say I am familiar with three distinct stages of feminine variation: my grandmother, whom I barely remember (above all the squeeze of her dry, bony hand ), Udina as the mature form, at the height of her development, and now Paul, a tiny woman who has only just discovered how to walk but who does not differ in any particular way, aside of course from those bodily signs, most surprisingly, but praise be to God, they are concealed from the gaze of outsiders.
It’s hard for me to write about Udina, because every memory of her fills my heart with suffering and sadness. We did the best we could for her here, gave her a warm room and food. Although it was difficult to communicate with her, since she spoke the language of the savages, we took her in like a brother among us. I taught her to dye and to light a fire with a little piece of glass. I taught her to embroider and to choose the threads. She had long, dark hair and beautiful hazel eyes. Her face was smooth. But Udina was a savage. She feared us. In the evenings, she would barricade herself inside the area I had allotted her along with her children, and by day, whenever one of the brothers just tried to go up to her, she would shriek in a terrible, piercing, shrill voice. I must say honestly that I was the only one she trusted, and we were even able to converse, gradually establishing the rules of our common language, which was made up of individual words and gestures. Sometimes she would laugh joyfully, when it would come to pass that we both knew some word. ‘River,’ I would say and indicate the Prut, and she would repeat in a manner sounding almost identical. I liked her laughter very much. It was important to me to make her laugh as much as possible, and then I, too, would be joyful. I gifted her a piece of good canvas, and she made herself a long shirt out of it, and delighted by our colorful threads she embroidered herself a vivid fish on it. She knew how to braid her hair into complex configurations, thereby introducing us to a new custom. Now almost all the brothers wear their hair in this way. She also taught us a special dish – you have to make a dough and then squeeze it up into very thin discs, and then envelop within them boiled potatoes with cheese. But when the ice started to melt, and the banks of the Prut got green again, she wandered out to the wall more and more often and she just stood there, stock-still, staring off into the steppe. She missed it, that was clear. Missed them, missed her fellow savages. Just as I missed Father Basil. I know how painful that is, how heavy it weighs on the heart, how deep it gets inside you. You want to do something, to rip that pain out of your body, and at the same time you know there’s simply nothing to be done. At least she could run away somewhere. But how about us? Where could we go to get just one more glimpse of Father Basil?
I must have somehow sensed that she would run away, although I didn’t even realize it myself yet. I wanted to prevent it and judged it would be best to show her the thing that was keeping all of us here, what inspired us to awake every morning in the same place and not give in to the madness of uprooting ourselves and ceaseless travels – what separated us from the savages. For us constancy and order are, after all, the pillars of civilization. The civilized world exists because of an attachment to a place, by being more like the tree than the birds. Such were Father Basil’s teachings.
I took her down into our stores, and there, unveiling the windows, I showed her our Standard, spread out across the floor. Udina must have been impressed by its great size and grandeur, and the colors, even though here and there some of them had faded. She circled it, keeping her breath in. Yes, I had been right, for she fell under its sway, its charm, its power – as everyone did. Then this woman crouched and examined up close the appliqué patterns and the stitches, touched regretfully the intermittently jagged edges, the abrasions and discolorations. I must confess her absorption made me happy. It meant that from then on she would rather come down and labor over this great miracle instead of standing on the battlements and looking out, unable to see the steppe. And indeed – she requested from me a real metal needle. Then for several days she mended the edges of the Standard. It was good to watch her slim, skilled fingers as they brought order into chaos. From then on we would sit in the afternoons with the other brothers, too, and we would sew and stitch and embroider. In her rough language she would tell stories we only understood in part – about animals, marching, hunting, great deserted cities somewhere to the east, mountains at the ends of the earth, a great sea that might be to the south of us and into which flows our Prut. She talked about great boats powered by the wind, about iron roads. She showed us moving lights that travel through the evening sky and then, after she left, I started calling her a moving star in my mind. In the end she asked me to embroider in a corner of the Standard the same fish she had done on her shirt. And I agreed. Why shouldn’t she be able to leave behind her trace? Why couldn’t all of us do that? So each brother thought up some animal or other, outlined it and colored in the outline. There was a heron, a hedgehog, an owl, even a snake. I chose a dog, because it seemed to me a dog would be the closest to what I do: like a dog, I am a guardian. Udina assembled a beautiful fish, completely covered in colorful scales, with a great eye made out of the glass for starting fires, with a fluttering tail. She embroidered those scales one after the next, each out of a different piece of dyed linen, until the fish looked alive.
And then, once it had gotten completely warm outside, she disappeared. Father Basil said that the savages are the way they are because they get bored quickly. That is why they travel, why they don’t belong to the civilized world, because they lack our values – attachment to a place and regularity.
At first I thought she would come back, and then it was me standing on the wall and watching the steppe, mistaking every moving dot for Udina. How did she get across the river? I don’t know. Maybe she went the other way, to the west. Maybe the Standard awoke in her a longing for something different, something unknown, and maybe we have that longing, too, but we don’t have the courage to admit it – that somewhere out there other places exist, other ways of standing guard. She left her children with us, which is the real reason I think she will come back. She was in fact quite attached to them.
The children are active and joyful creatures, we all fell in love with them. The brothers even prefer taking care of them, having that be their duty, than working the fields or dyeing and spinning the threads. Brother John the Second is teaching them our language, as well as other civilized capabilities – setting down the letters of the alphabet, reading, growing herbs in the gardens and making cheese. Mainly Peter, since Paul is still a very little girl. They also assist us in our labors of the Standard, for the holiday is rapidly approaching – the days are getting longer. It’s because of them that we decided to add yet another figure to this year, and not an animal figure like before, but a human one. We determined that Father Basil would have praised this decision, for now the Standard will feature a true Trinity, and as we know, he had one in his heart.
That labor continues. My hands are dyed blue and red, and my fingers have been pricked to bleeding with the needle. We arise at dawn so as not to squander so much as a single ray of light. Our tomatoes are already ripening, so we are subsisting on them and cheese alone, because to light the ovens for bread would just be wasteful. Today Brother Lucas the Fourth reminded us as we were all working what Father Basil said about the Standard – that long, long ago, before the Dimming and the Repartition, the wonderful Standard was shown every evening. Back then it was completely white, pure as the Virgin, and yet in total darkness colorful moving images would appear on it. The Standard had a voice back then – the figures spoke, moved around, sang holy songs. Multitudes would visit it and in their reverence were witnesses to that miracle, every evening. Yet in a world that was falling apart and drowning in chaos, the Standard fell silent. That is why with our needles we must persuade it to hold forth once more, must nudge it, must suggest to it new images.
Oh, Udina, oh, Christopher, walking across the water, if you were here, you would see how we are performing our task with dedication and devotion: how we ready our babes, better overlaying their skin, how we clean the long trumpets done from angelica stems, while in the garrison they’re readying the cannons, and their freshly polished barrels gleam, how the frenzied fuss goes on. A sturdy stand has already been erected on the battlements so we can hang the Standard facing east, and perhaps it will draw in once more our barbarians from the steppes, used as they are to the annual show. Do they know, do they assume, that we do this for them? For the Great Virgin to gaze upon them, that queen of the civilized world and of all the borderlands and steppes. And now she’s even more powerful, because we’ve added a second little child beside her, so that now she shows herself in all her glory, holding one child close, the other by the hand.
And I even dare to harbor the slight hope that somewhere in the distance Udina will notice it and won’t be able to resist turning around and coming back for us.
Artwork © Lidia Garcia / Le Petit Paquebot