Morning and Evening, Pt. XVII
The latest installment in an ongoing narrative, told week by week
At Yossel’s laughter, Pawel’s tightly hunched shoulders relaxed. He seated himself again on an elm stump facing the water, and lifted the rod in his hands.
“Father Arkady would never dirty his cassock in the wood,” he said, casting the hook into the water with a hissing sound. “Jesus went in his bare feet to the people, but my master prefers boots of red leather and black satin robes. He sleeps in furs, and burns sweet incense in his rooms. And me? I empty his chamber pot.”
Surprised at the bitterness in his friend’s voice, Yossel sat beside him, on the trunk of a felled birch. “I thought Father Arkady was good to you,” he said. “I thought he was teaching you to read.”
“Your teacher, he taught you letters, didn’t he?”
“Long ago,” Yossel said, remembering the taste of the honey he’d licked off each letter as he learned it: aleph, bais, gimmel, daled.
“Father Arkady has promised to teach me letters since I was nine,” said Pawel. “For five years I’ve swept the floors, raked the graves, cleaned the pews of stray hairs and cherry stones. Emptied his chamber pot and scrubbed his quarters with lye. And still I cannot write God’s name. Or mine. I can sing a hundred hymns, but read none of them. I love Father Arkady well, for taking me in when no one else would touch a cursed boy, not farrier or stonemason, cooper, farmer, goatherd. I know what they say about me. And I am too weak for all of it anyway, I know. And so I work like a woman, on my knees, under God’s jeweled windows, and whenever I dare I ask to learn to read. I ask and am denied. Three times Christ was denied, but I have been denied a hundred times, and the gilded Bible stays shut on the lectern. It’s always closed, and the gold-dipped edges of the pages shine at me…”
At this he broke off, glanced at Yossel, and laughed again, a bitter short laugh.