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.