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Monday, May 16, 2005

The Prostration

Nikiforov Volgin


It was evening when a stranger came up to the pilgrims. He was wearing a soldier's shirt, was barefoot, and had patches on his pants. His hair was auburn, and he was tall. Behind his back he carried a backpack and high, dust colored boots. He had the eyes of those who had traversed many a road, who often slept under the stars, among the steppes and the forests; who had been touched by monastic peace, and whose soul was without sleep.


An experienced pilgrim, Pachom, whose hand was withered, looked at the unknown person, and smiled, as if to welcome one's own. Here comes a man of God. His look is quiet, but his soul isn't.


The unknown person asked, "are you brothers heading towards the monastery, by any chance?"

"Yes, to the one with the icon of the Mother of God."

"And may I come with you?"

"Welcome, man of Christ."

They walked along the ancient river, bathed in the vanishing sunlight. They passed the low growing fields of Novgorod and walked towards the distant monastery located in the forests, and towards the icon of the Mother of God known throughout Russia, and to the monastery known for its ancient Novgorod chant and the clear sound of its silver bells.


Counting the new wayfarer, there were five pilgrims in all. Old Pachom, large-eyed and disheveled, wearing a winter soldier's hat and poor boots, with a wise and gentle look. There was bearded Hilarion, in a long caftan resembling a cassock. Severe and thin, he looked like a desert dweller.

Bent-over Phocla was covered with a monastic black scarf and repeated the Jesus prayer throughout her journey. A barefooted and pale boy, Antosha, with large, frightened eyes, dressed in a long white shirt without a belt, held a little bouquet of wild flowers in his thin hand. Antosha walked in back with a quiet and sickly step, strangely serious in an un-childlike way.


The measured prayerful gait of the pilgrims blended in with the summer dusk, with the rustle of the grass, the gurgling of the river, the dying embers of the setting sun, and the icy glimmer of the evening stars.

"And who might you be, kind person?" asked Pochom.

"Ignat Mulumsiv," he quietly answered, and lowered his head.

The pilgrims shuddered, and fear appeared in their quiet peasant eyes.

"You're not the same Mulumsiv who...."

But Mulumsiv did not allow Pochom to finish, and firmly answered, "yes, brothers, the same Mulumsiv who killed, robbed, who drank vodka from chalices, and who shot at icons. Yes, it is I, an Orthodox killer, an animal. But don't be afraid of me. Forgive me for Christ's sake." He fell to his knees before the pilgrims, and prostrated himself.


Baba Phocla started to cross herself, wiping away tears with the edge of the monastic scarf. Hilarion bowed his grey head. Pochom sighed deeply. Antosha suddenly started to scream in fright, threw up his thin hands, fell on the road, started to thrash about in convulsions, foam coming from his mouth.


Immediately Phocla began to pray, "Antosha, my little white flower, God help you. May the Mother of God protect and comfort the child Anton. Protect him from all harm, from all sadness. Come to his aid. Help him." As she prayed, she was constantly making the sign of the Cross
over his little body. They put Antosha on the grass, and sat near him, waiting for the fit to be over. He was especially touching in his long shirt, pale almost to blueness, and racked with convulsions, while tightly gripping that little bouquet of wild flowers in his thin small hand.


"This is the second year that he has suffered from these fits," quietly whispered Pochom to Mulumsiv. "His little angelic soul has suffered greatly. It was before his very eyes that his father and mother were shot.

By any chance did you know the baron, the landowner Kolovanov?"

"Kolovanov," started to shudder Mulumsiv, becoming deathly pale. "But that's the one...."

Hilarion didn't allow Mulumsiv to finish, and said, "this is his son."

"Oh, cursed am I," wailed Mulumsiv.

"So, it is he, that little dove, that pale boy, whom I beat with fists that day. It was on an autumn evening that we went to execute the Kolovanovs," Mulumsiv recalled, sighing deeply, with a crazed look in his widely opened eyes. "It was windy, muddy, snowing, and in back of us, walked Antosha. He was barefoot, without a hat, in his underclothes alone. He ran along the streets, and cried, 'don't kill my father and mother. Please, dear uncles, don't kill them,' and I beat him with my fist so that he wouldn't interfere. We executed the Kolovanovs. Antosha fell upon their bodies and started to scream. From that time on, throughout my life, I will have in my memory that scream. There is nothing that can drown it out. It burns me. It gives me no rest. There isn't a single night that goes by when I don't dream about that boy. My conscience began to bother me. It burned me to madness. Finally, I couldn't stand my evil deeds any longer, and I ran out , in winter, wearing only a thin shirt, into the crowded square. I fell to my knees and started to ask people for forgiveness.

They considered me insane and locked me away. But I escaped from there, and turned into a pilgrim. This is now my second year that I wander along Russian roads in the hope of Christ's mercy."

Mulumsiv fell in front of Antosha and kissed his feet. "Oh Martyr," he cried, "I, accursed wretch have caused you such suffering. Forgive me, holy one. Forgive my vileness. You are pale emaciated, deprived of life's blood by me. Forgive me."


The pilgrims looked severely at Mulumsiv, the way saints do in icons. When Antosha came to, Mulumsiv picked him up in his arms and again they walked with a measured Russian step under the glimmer of the blue stars and towards the distant monastery.


(From The Earth's Name's Day, a collection of Russian stories for children. Translated by Natasha Lord.)