Proverbial Beer

My boss of several years, back in the 1980s, often said:

“I’ll see you there if I don’t get run over by the proverbial beer truck.”

Dennis Corson

I had heard the expression often enough before. It had particular meaning for me. When I was a teenager, my father bought a retired Wiedemann’s Beer truck. Wiedemann’s was a Kentucky brewery, and we lived in Lima, Ohio, at the time. Our truck had the same configuarion as the one shown here. The cab and chassis, though, were not of a 1957 GMC in the photo but a 1952 Dodge.

With the truck repainted a medium blue, Dad then converted it to a camper to sleep six or so, so we could use it on our annual summertime trip to Maine to see his mother and grandmother. (We were a family of eight, but those who preferred not to sleep in the truck could pitch a tent.) We used the truck as a moving van when we left Ohio for good in 1967 and replanted ourselves in Farmington, Maine.

Before we moved, I drove the truck to high school off and on as a tenth-grader at Lima Senior High School, alternating with my 1939 Chrysler New Yorker. (See the article, Johnny Monroe’s Junkyard.)

So, with the Wiedemann’s truck in mind, our emblem is the Proverbial Beer truck, and hence our name.

Proverbial Beer has been produced in tiny batches (48-50 bottles) at random intervals since 2006 at a somewhat fictional home brewery in Lincoln, Maine. The brand (trademark pending) is named in recognition of the proverbial beer truck in the once-common expression.

Proverbial Beer is not a commercial brewery or brew pub. It is a brand name. And it’s a brand you can use! See ‘The Proposition’ below to learn more.

We don’t have a license to make beer to sell. The laws are too complicated for that and are certainly designed to exclude us from the market. We don’t want to make thousands of barrels a year, anyway. Then we’d have to hire lawyers and accountants, buy workers’ comp and liability insurance, pay estimated quarterly taxes, advertise, submit “compliance” reports in violation of the Fifth Amendment, standardize our process, certify our alcohol content… Too much work that has nothing to do with enjoying the craft of brewing and consuming the results.

We want to make enough to remain reasonably supplied with beer for home consumption and sharing. That’s all. And we do know how to make beer, or more accurately, ale, in the usual home-brew batch. (Lager is not our thing.)

The Proposition

If you don’t know how or have tried and found it too messy or scary, but you would still like to enjoy some great home brew — and it definitely is as good as or better than most commercially-made brew — we have a proposition.

You shop for, select, and buy a Brewer’s Best kit that makes five gallons of home brew and arrange to get it to us. There are two stores in Bangor, Maine, which stock these kits: the Natural Living Center and Central Street Farm House.

Then allow a week for us to start the brew, another seven to ten days to ferment, and two to four weeks to age in the bottles — four weeks minimum altogether. For the cost of the kit you will receive at least 24 bottles of expertly-made home brew.

You can participate in the brewing as much as you want to — not at all or, if you want to learn how to do it, I’ll be your consultant as you do it all yourself or as much as you want to using my equipment (and my home site).

While you wait for 30 days or so, you can consume a bottle a day of commercially-produced beer (not screw caps) and bring me the empties to replace the ones that you will take home.

For about 20 cents extra per bottle we can arrange to include custom labels (not homemade labels).

contact us at, find us at

Chariots and Global Warming

The fly wants the credit.

Around twenty thousand years ago, sheets of ice thousands of feet thick lay over northern reaches of Europe and Asia, and over all of Canada and New England, spreading as far south as Ohio, the Dakotas, and Washington state. When this ice was at its greatest depth, perhaps a mile in thickness, the water in the oceans worldwide was about 300 feet lower than today.

This is commonly called the ice age, although geologists and climatologists tell us it was part of a much longer period they call a “glacial age,” and they point out that we are technically still in one that began about two and a half million years ago. Those who have watched the “Ice Age” movies, with their woolly mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, and primitive humans, are aware that we actually did have a recent icy period, when those creatures were indeed present, and probably the same people who have seen the movies might also assume that it ended when the ice receded from the United States about 13,000 years ago.

Anthropologists have deduced that about 16,000 years ago, when the sea had dropped between Russia and Alaska leaving a frozen “land bridge,” humans, for the first time, explored their way from Asia into North America. In place of open water there was only permafrost between the two continents in what is now the Bering Strait.

Not the First Ice Age

Scientists generally accept the geological evidence that there have been at least five long glacial ages, each one lasting millions of years. In at least one such period, the glacial age centered around 850 million years ago, the oceans were practically empty and ice covered the earth from both poles almost to the equator. From a quarter million miles in space — the perspective from the moon, for instance — it looked like a snowball earth.

The current glacial age, the one we are still in, began about two and a half million years ago, at the beginning of the Pleistocene epoch. It was during the Pleistocene when modern mammals, especially the larger and smarter ones, began to take over the earth. But the Pleistocene is considered to have ended about 11,000 years ago, and we are now in the Holocene epoch, which is the period of mankind’s rapid development. The current glacial age, you see, has continued into a new epoch.

In a glacial age, such as the present one, the atmosphere worldwide cools by an average of as little as six degrees Celsius, or ten degrees Fahrenheit, and stays cooler. The average temperature of the earth’s surface, that is, the ground temperature, drops too. Precipitation continues year after year, more and more as snow, but cannot melt, and so snow falls onto the previous year’s snow and thickens into ice sheets over parts of several continents. The polar ice spreads, and mountain glaciers grow longer and deeper.


During the warmest periods between one glacial age and the next, there is no lasting ice to speak of around the globe, even at the north and south poles. That is how it was just a few million years before the Pleistocene. Plants grew all over the continent of Antarctica and there was warm open water at the north pole. Since humans did not exist at that point — or if they did, they were not organized into industrial nations — humans did not cause palm trees to grow at the south pole.

A little thing to keep in mind as you look at the earth, by the way: In the southern hemisphere, there is a great land mass at the south pole — the continent Antarctica — and virtually nothing but oceans around it for thousands of miles. In the northern hemisphere it’s just the opposite. There is a great expanse of water at the north pole — a sea — and little else but land around it for thousands of miles.

Even though the ice sheets have melted partway back so they now cover just the polar areas, we are still in a warming phase of the latest glacial age. What determines that the current glacial age has not ended are the remaining Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets and the frozen sea at the north pole. By definition, when this remaining ice has melted, the current glacial age will have ended, and we will anticipate that a sixth great glacial age will begin some millions of years beyond that — we’ll have to wait and see. This complete polar melting will happen, once again, whether mankind exists or not.

Not A Smooth Transition

During a glacial age, though, there are pulses of intense glaciation, and periods of rapid warming which we call interglacials. It is the cooling side of such a glaciation that brought us the most recent “ice age” that peaked 20,000 years ago. For the entire time since then, that is for the past 20,000 years, (which includes the 13,000 years or so since most of the ice receded from the United States), we appear to be on the warming side of an interglacial period which, if it isn’t the end of the glacial age, may last many more thousands of years. This current warming could last until the ice sheets are all melted, but if it doesn’t, and turns abruptly cold again, it could plunge us back into another few thousand years with ice sheets creeping over the continents — but that would still be part of an overall warming trend. Eventually, the glacial age will end and there will likely be no natural ice to be found anywhere on earth.

In other words, it’s kind of like the tides at the seashore. If we compare the incoming tide to the cooling of the earth, and the outgoing tide to the warming of the earth, then we are currently near the end of an outgoing tide. As the tide is changing, you can stand on the beach and the water surges over your feet (temporary cooling), then flows back out (temporary warming), then back over your feet again, and so on. But eventually it no longer reaches your feet, and you are left standing on wet sand. That is sort of where we are now with the current long glacial age and the present interglacial. The most recent ice age that peaked 20,000 years ago was like one of the last surges that covers your feet on the beach. Now we’re at the stage where we would wait to see whether the wet sand dries out completely. Another surge or more may rush all the way up and touch your toes again — another mini-ice age — another interglacial. And then the waves will be gone and there will be a long wait on hot dry sand until the cooling begins once more, like the tide returning to the beach after a few hours, comparable to another — the sixth — glacial age.

Cosmic Forces and Humans

Science has not yet come up with a good explanation of the forces in the universe that have kept this cycle in motion. There are theories and they all involve some very powerful forces, though. And they are comparable with, and probably tied to, other strong forces: the throbbing of pulsars, the bursts of gas emissions from the sun, the elasticity of orbits, and the waves of interstellar energy rays that wash over us like unseen spirits.

Onto this cosmic time scale have arrived modern humans. Over the past hundred years or so, since Albert Einstein shook the earth with his strange theories, we have discovered all this stuff about the glacial ages. We have put a halt to the forest fires that used to burn for years over vast areas of the continents. Thus we may have stalled some of the natural warming. We have begun burning the “fossil fuel” left from decayed and buried forests instead, so maybe it’s a break-even.

Instead of viewing human activity as a cause of global warming, it is valid to look at global warming as a boost to human civilization and a cause, rather than a consequence, of the “industrial revolution.”

Our population is so great, or more precisely, so small, that all the humans on earth, about seven billion people, could just about cover the island of Puerto Rico with 14 square feet per person – about the proximity that people enjoy on a dance floor, or on a crowded sidewalk, or when it’s crowded at the Springfield Fair. If all the people on earth were standing around like a crowd waiting for a speech from a fascinating politician, they could do it on Puerto Rico, and the rest of the earth would be devoid of humans. That’s how much space we actually take up on the earth.

There are those within this jostling crowd who believe that our human activity of the past century or two, and especially since the new millennium began, has substantially affected the ebb and flow of the current glacial age — what is called the earth’s albedo. They want us to believe that the earth is warming because of our reckless activity, especially the burning of fossil fuels, and if we stop burning stuff and stop raising animals that expel methane, we will halt global warming.

Flattering Ourselves

Well, global warming is the nature of the cycle and the cycle of nature. Global warming is absolutely real and would forge ahead even if humans had not invented so much as a campfire. There is evidence that humans have contributed gases to help block the sunlight hitting the earth, and there is even debate whether that contributes to cooling or warming of the atmosphere, but there is no scientific evidence that human activity is affecting the trend of the present interglacial period or the outcome of the current glacial age. There is a difference between our suspicion that we are doing it and scientific evidence that we are doing it. That difference is profound. I am a scientist, so I will refrain from the conceit that I have such cosmic powers until I see the evidence.

I don’t make fun of people who reduce, re-use, and recycle. I am strongly involved in conservation on all levels. Waste and excess are deplorable for so many reasons that I don’t need political persuasion to avoid it and to practice good stewardship of the earth.

Science, in part, is the process of proposing theories, discovering evidence, and assembling information into coherent explanations of the world. Science is also dispassionate. If an explanation does not stand up to proof, it must be discarded, often to the serious disappointment of anyone who wanted to believe the explanation.

If a theory has not been tested, a scientist does not proclaim that the theory is proof. But a few loud scientists who favor a certain political position have been offering theories of human influence as proof of human influence. Having looked at the theories that explain the natural surges in global warming and cooling, for which there is confirming evidence, I must argue that humans are falsely blaming themselves if they believe that they have already made any impact on the forces of the universe. Humans deserve even more to be disregarded who think we can reverse those cosmic forces by changing the U.S. tax code (to punish certain politically uncooperative corporations or industries). They may call themselves scientists, but they are spreading superstition.

And, if we can influence the forces of the universe by political antics — for which we might wait centuries to ascertain the specific results — can we then halt the natural cycle altogether so that the oceans nevermore rise or fall by one meter, the mean temperatures in all zones hold steady, and weather patterns and habitats remain constant?

Such human folly — a sort of incredible arrogance, really — is as if a few of the sand crabs on the beach have suddenly decided that the crabs are collectively responsible for the disappearance of the water and the drying of the sand between tides, and so they force all the crabs to stay buried and completely still, on the premise that their sacrifice will make the water return.

Regarding those who believe humans have caused the earth to warm by roughly one degree in the last hundred years, Æsop may have said it best, around 600 B.C.: The fly sat on the axel-tree of the chariot wheel and said: What a dust I do raise!

=David A. Woodbury=

A Mother’s Poem

From Eliza Wyman (Porter) Sweet (1807-1881) to her son, Andrew Jackson Sweet (1837-1892), lamenting that, at age 17, he has left home to roam.

Dear Son thou wast my hearts delight
The morn of life was gay and cheerly
That morn has rushed to sudden night
Without thee thy fathers house is dreary

I held thee on my knee dear son
And kisst thee ore and oer again
But ah thy little day of love is done
Thou art thy own man roaming

Dear lovely son thou art gone
From loveing friends and mother
Thy youthful love and manly form
Will dwell with us forever

But if we never meet again
While here on earth we roam
O may we meet in that bright realm
Where darksome nights can never come

I ask a boon of thee dear son
Say will thee grant it to thy mother
It is to seek that heavenly friend
That sticketh closer than a brother

In heaven dear son lay up thy treasure
Where moth and rust can never blight
That when thy time on earth is measured
Thou will dwell in glory bright

Dec 19th 1854 Eliza Sweet

Andrew J. Sweet was my great-great grandfather. His daughter, Goldie Sweet, was my great-grandmother, and I knew her well; she died at my parents’ house in Farmington, Maine, when I was 18 and a senior in high school. Eliza Wyman (Porter) Sweet was Andrew’s mother. The original copy of this poem is in my collection of family documents. –David A. Woodbury

80 Favorite Books

actually many more than eighty, but that’s what it set out to be

Readers like to share books.  Some readers collect them too.  One wall of the biggest room in our house is all books.  But there are as many more, altogether, lined up on random shelves in other rooms.

Beth and I are readers.  We each have some books that we will never part with, although we might lend them.  We pick up new ones almost every week — thank you, Hannaford! — and we haul out boxfuls now and then.  I’ve had the bad habit of bringing home extra copies of the ones I like best, in order to gift them.  If you want a copy of The Source, for instance, one of the best books of all time, just ask.  I may have one to give away.  (Other titles too.)

Besides the ones I’ve written myself, (they’re in the list), what follows is a list of my favorite books of all time; about 80 and the list is growing.  I wish there were time and space to explain each one.  If you want to know why one is on this list, just ask.

The numbers 1-8 are a sort of ranking by importance to me.  Those in the 1st rank are the ones I would read again and in many cases I have.  Something in the 8th rank may be just as readable and captivating but, for me, the content may not have had as much impact as a book with a higher ranking.  But they all had some impact.

Yes, I’ve read them all, some more than once.  And I can warmly recommend almost anything else written by any of the below authors; I just refrained from listing every work each one has written and which I have read.

There are exceptions to the anything-by-the-same-author rule.  Nothing else by Joseph Heller rises to the inspired genius of Catch-22.  But almost all of James Michener’s works are equally absorbing.  Almost all of Jack London, Mark Twain, and Charles Dickens, too.

Then there are modern authors, whom I’ve read but haven’t even listed.  Maybe they will go on my next list of 80.  And collections of short stories — how I loved Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, which I subscribed to in the 1960s!  But what author gets the credit?

Which one is the best ever?  No other book glows with the beauty of the English language like Lolita by the Russian author Vladimir Nabokov, even though the story shocks many readers.  And Nabokov’s Russian roots conceal his acquaintance with the English and French languages during the early years of his life.  His early command of all three languages certainly contributed uniquely to his linguistic power.  As a man of faith, I can’t promote the subject matter in most of his work and so I can’t rate Lolita a ‘1’ overall.  Who is my second-favorite author in English?  I’ve listed only one title by O. Henry but absolutely everything by this author is a treat for a lover of language.

For fiction, though, I can’t pick just one book.  The entire group that I’ve rated a ‘1’ is the best fiction ever.

The best ever for non-fiction would have to be Big Bang.  And yet, anything by P. J. O’Rourke is the best non-fiction for sheer entertainment, and perhaps The True Believer is the best piece of social inquiry.

My favorite juvenile novel of all time, The Lion’s Paw, used to be hard to come by, but I understand that it was recently re-released.  I have a new copy which I obtained right after its very limited 50th-anniversary re-publication in 1996, but I originally read it in my youth.  Now I hear there is an edition published in 2008.

If you are looking for a book to read, you can’t go wrong if you choose from this list, although if you’re not “into” non-fiction, then I will not be responsible if you don’t enjoy, for instance, Big Bang.  But if you do enjoy non-fiction, I will be surprised if your reaction to Big Bang isn’t similar to mine — the most engaging, suspenseful, and possibly the most faith-restoring book I have read in a quarter century.

I am specific about the edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, by the way.  I fear that, over succeeding editions, important quotations will be deemed expendable to make space for later, and probably deserving, entries.  So, if you do obtain a later edition, pair it with the fourteenth (or earlier), and if you have the fourteenth and you obtain a later one, keep them both.

Why I Am A Catholic by Garry Wills did not covert me to the Roman Catholic church, but it was hugely edifying and faith-affirming.

I could add hundreds more books.  It pains me to leave some out, for instance William Bennett’s compilations under the titles of The Moral Compass and The Book of Virtues.  The truth is, I haven’t read both of those cover to cover, but they are essential to a personal library.

I could add several dozen books that are important to me but which don’t belong on a list of casual reading.  These would include titles that I found edifying or academically informative or useful in personal meditation.  The Bible, of course (New English Bible with the Apocrypha).  The Book of Common Prayer.  The Ladder of Divine Ascent.  Complete Field Guide to American Wildlife.  My shelves full of railroad books contain more examples, as are my books in other languages.  Perhaps, some day, I will turn my lists of books into a book unto itself.

I am certain that I have forgotten to include a few titles which, if I were to think of them, I would be chagrined to realize I have omitted.  When they come to mind I will edit this list.

And here it is:


1. Big Bang by Simon Singh

2. In the Empire of Genghis Khan by Stanley Stewart

2. The Great Evolution Mystery by Gordon Rattray Taylor

3. King Solomon’s Ring by Konrad Lorenz

3. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks

3. The Way of a Pilgrim by author unknown

4. Ken Purdy’s Book of Automobiles by Ken Purdy

5. The Code Book by Simon Singh

5. Common Sense and Rights of Man by Thomas Paine (often published in one volume)

6. Mind of the Raven by Bernd Heinrich

6. The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce

6. Odd Girl Out by Rachel Simmons

6. Why I Am A Catholic by Garry Wills

6. The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton

7. The Best-loved Poems of the American People compiled by Hazel Felleman

7. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

7. Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt

7. The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White

7. Familiar Quotations, Fourteenth Edition compiled by John Bartlett

7. Free to Choose by Milton and Rose Friedman

7. The Life That Lives on Man by Michael Andrews

7. Game Management by Aldo Leopold

8. Quotations from Chairman Bill by William F. Buckley, Jr.

8. Small Is Beautiful by E. F. Schumacher

8. The Founding Fish by John McFee

8. Annals of the Former World by John McPhee

8. Babie Nayms by David A. Woodbury


1. Parliament of Whores by P. J. O’Rourke

1. The True Believer by Eric Hoffer

1. Maine Stories by Lew-Ellyn Hughes

2. Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

2. One Man’s Meat by E. B. White

3. Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon

3. The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener by Martin Gardner


1. Memoirs of a Superfluous Man by Albert Jay Nock

1. The Narrative of Henry Tufts by Henry Tufts, Jr., edited by Daniel Allie

2. A Whole-Souled Woman by Susan Strane

3. Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie

4. Education of a Wandering Man by Louis L’Amour


1. Pogo by Walk Kelly

2. Asterix the Gaul by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo


1. The Age of Steam by Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg


1. Cold Morning Shadow by David A. Woodbury

1. Fire, Wind & Yesterday by David A. Woodbury

1. The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare

1. The Call of the Wild by Jack London

1. Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini

1. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

1. The Enormous Room by e. e. cummings

1. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

1. The Lion’s Paw by Robb White

1. Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts

1. The Oxbow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clarkson

1. Penrod by Booth Tarkington

1. Red Sky at Morning by Richard Bradford

1. The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis

1. The Source by James A. Michener

1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

1. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

2. Follow the River by James Alexander Thom

2. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

2. Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini

2. Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

2. Bleak House by Charles Dickens

3. Roots by Alex Haley

3. Halic: The Story of a Gray Seal by Ewan Clarkson

3. Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow

3. Work Song by Ivan Doig

4. All Creatures Great and Small by James A. Herriot

4. Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

4. Come Spring by Ben Ames Williams

4. Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey

4. Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

5. The Clover Street News by David A. Woodbury

6. Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

6. Papa Martel by Gerald Robichaud

6. Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

7. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov


1. Rolling Stones (and all the other volumes) by O. Henry

1. Civil War Stories by Ambrose Bierce [especially “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”]

1. Tales to Warm Your Mind by David A. Woodbury

3. Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories by Jean Shepherd

5. A Fine and Pleasant Misery by Patrick F. McManus

Feel free to recommend more!

*One Man

The asterisk: I sometimes append the asterisk when referring to myself.

I describe myself as an activist for individual rights, an advocate of peace through mutual tolerance if not acceptance, and a champion of social justice through personal responsibility.  As a pacifist, I nonetheless support an individual’s right, with whatever force it might take, to defend himself immediately and decisively from physical assault or affront to property or liberty.  To put it in the converse, if I choose to punch someone in the face or break into his home, I am inviting him to respond with any force that, in his judgment, will terminate my assault or my aggression instantly.  One who exercises the right of self-defense, in my view, may nevertheless be a true pacifist, but merely one who chooses not to be a victim.

I am an activist against the creation of “rights” through coercion of others, against peace through capitulation, and against justice manifested as hatred of those who withdraw from mass hysteria.  I am also an activist on behalf of Almighty God, but that is beyond the scope of this piece and can better be appreciated through my book, Fire, Wind & Yesterday.

I have a Bachelor of Science degree in Wildlife Management, (University of Maine, 1977) — the education required of state wildlife biologists and game wardens.  My undergraduate major was the science of environmental ecology (a subject distinctly different from environmentalist politics without the science).  I am a Registered Maine Guide who has hiked and hunted and fished and canoed and boated and lived in the northern Maine woods since the mid-1970s, a transplant from the western mountains of Maine.

I lay serious claim to the titles of Activist, Advisor, Advisor to the Administration, Economic Advisor, Political Advisor, Constitutional Analyst, Legal Analyst, Foreign Policy Analyst, Media Analyst, Military Analyst, Cryptanalyst, Linguist, Expert, Academic Expert, Unnamed Source, Strategist, and more… not that anyone listens, but I am as qualified as anyone named in the news media to assume any of these monikers.  How can that be, you ask?  I’m active all the time, even sometimes as an agitator, I analyze and advise and strategize, I’m an expert and a source, and, yes, I’m a cryptanalyst.  It’s true that very few listen, but nevertheless, I advise.  The beneficiaries of my activism, analysis, and advice are those who read my commentary, wherever I might share it.

I’m every bit as much an expert on things political as Noam Chomsky, whose formal education is in in linguistics, and Deepak Chopra, the medical doctor, and many other darlings of the broadcast media — who are treated as “experts” in politics because they say what the media want to hear.  (Just as I do, Chomsky and Chopra each have a formal education in something far removed from the study of the U.S. Constitution.  It’s plain to me that I have read it and they have not, so I claim a greater expertise in that hallowed document than they can.)

I scoff at news media reports that quote “experts” without naming them.  I’m equally unimpressed by reports that credit “unnamed sources,” “legal analysts,” “political advisors,” and the like.  I’m analyzing politics and laws and the media all the time.  I write letters to elected officials giving my advice.  I’m an expert on quite a few things, especially in dealing with the messes created by “enabling legislation.”  My written work is my political activism.

The government of the USA was designed not to be a religion that could only be interpreted by high priests (lawyers).  It was designed to be understood by anyone.  I do my honest best to understand law as handed down, and I refuse to employ a cadre of lawyers to help me make it through an average day.  All you need to know to be a legal analyst is that your can pay one lawyer $500 to tell you that an act of the legislature or that a court opinion means one thing, and then you can pay another lawyer $500 to tell you that a law or a ruling means the opposite.  I usually keep my thousand dollars and decide for myself.

Those seated in state legislatures around the country and in the Congress of the USA who have any respect for the insane complexity of current law and who are willing to muck it up further do not have my respect.  Government was not meant to identify all the problems I didn’t even know I had and point out all the offenses that I didn’t imagine have ever been committed against me and then force solutions upon me.  I don’t need that kind of help.  I believe in the complete ineptitude of a government to solve any problem except its practitioners’ re-election or re-appointment.

No one in government takes my advice, nor usually the advice of others with a lot more influence than I have in publishing and commentary — recent voices such as Ann Coulter, George Will, Bill Kristol, William F. Buckley, Jr., Robert Bork, Charles Krauthammer, and Milton Friedman, or earlier voices such as Ayn Rand, John Hospers, Ludwig von Mises, and Albert Jay Nock.  But I cannot remain silent in the presence of so great a travesty as our government’s failure to meet its simple obligations.  Like Cindy Lou Who, I add my voice.


Laïsha and Kolyek

At last I raised my head.  Simonos stood before me and raised outstretched arms to receive me.  I was almost too drained to rise.  But I did, we hugged, and he kissed my cheeks.  Behind him stood Euthymios.  I hugged him, too.  I was afraid to look at Laïsha, but finally I glanced at the bed.  No Laïsha.  She had moved to stand behind Euthymios.  She was leaning on Simonos and he on her.

The brothers left the house while Laïsha and I stood facing each other.  We were alone, and I was afraid.  And then we were hugging.  I don’t know how long we carried on.  First we stood and clutched and just sobbed at each other, and then we sat upon the bench.  When at last I could form the words I asked Laïsha to tell me how anyone could ever again trust hands to heal that had done the terrible things mine had done.

Her offense was the worse, she insisted, for she had actually attempted to kill someone.  Now she was a fugitive.  I had made no attempt to kill, yet two had died in my presence within the past few weeks.  I merely harbored a secret concerning their fates, and that secret, which was now entrusted to these three friends, protected me from the wrath of others, wrath I did not deserve.

My greater regret, I told her, leaning my forehead against hers, was that I had lied.

“You feared me as I did you,” Laïsha discerned.  “You simply talked too much, and in order to talk you had to lie.”

“I’ll never lie to you again,” I promised.  “Never.”

“You talk too much,” Laïsha repeated.

Without our noticing, Simonos returned to stand behind us.  He interrupted our meditations.  “My feet hurt, Friend Physician.  Can you tend them now?”

And Laïsha added: “My side hurts, too, Kolyek.  Can you make me a flummery?”

I busied myself with these cares and setting some roots to simmer on the stove with a fresh fowl.  After that, I pulled some hides from the loft and from the walls and laid them about on the floor, the better to provide warmth for healing feet.  When at last I grasped the time of day, it was late afternoon.  All conversation has ceased for a time, and I, with head bowed and saying as little as was necessary, was tending to my sufferers.

At last Euthymios approached me.  “How do you feel?”

“Like a hollow reed.  There’s nothing left inside.”

“Nothing?” Euthymios asked.


“No peace?  No freedom?”

I tried to feel inside the empty straw that walked around the house at this hour dispensing medical care.  There was no emotion there.  I told him so.

“But Kolyek, you aren’t finished.”

“Oh, yes I am!” I said surely.

“No,” Euthymios repeated, gently.  “Kolyek, you have cleansed yourself of the sin.  And I for one find you beyond reproach, because you acted out of fear when things went badly that were beyond your control.  But now that those things that filled you with fear are gone, you are empty.”

“I’ve told you so.”

“Then what shall you put inside to replace it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you believe that I love you?”

I stared at him.  Somehow I knew what he meant.  I shrugged.

“You are a good person, Kolyek, full of hope and caring.  Do you believe that I can love that in you?”


“Then if I, who am a sinner, Kolyek, can love you, think how much more God loves you, he who made you and seeks you to be his own.  For his love is perfect, where mine is but the love of an imperfect man.”

“I see.”

“This room is filled with love for you, Kolyek.  Will you claim it?”

I looked around.  Simonos soaked his feet in a bowl I had prepared for him.  “‘He who refreshes others will himself be refreshed,’” said the little monk.

Laïsha had just changed her clothes behind her curtain and now sat on the edge of the bed combing her hair with the pigskin brush.  I had always understood that women never tend to their appearance in the presence of men, and yet Laïsha had done so openly before me, and now before these others also.  (I could only guess, but over the course of time such demonstrations before a man might be misconstrued as attempts to tantalize him, and thus a custom was born.)  Slaves were usually denied the opportunities to fuss over themselves at all.  Yet Laïsha, a woman and recently a slave, was obviously accustomed to minding her image, probably because of her station as servant to the merchant’s wife.

She already knew that I spurned many social conventions, and so she would readily ignore such prohibitions around me, trusting in her wretched condition to confute any notion that she wished to be provocative.  Yet now she ignored the same rules of behavior before the other two men in the house, and they seemed to disregard her display as well.  In any event, I would have said nothing that would repress her.  She was free to do as she pleased in my home.

The two in my care had been listening to Euthymios and me, and now they looked at me with silent smiles.  Laïsha’s terrible nausea of the previous days had all but left her, and the relief showed.

“I can feel the love,” I acknowledged slowly, trying not to let it in too quickly, for, as with a stomach empty and starving, I feared that it would hurt if I accepted too quickly anything to fill my void.

“Do you love me?” Euthymios pressed further.

“I have to understand it.”

“Don’t try too hard to understand it, Kolyek, for love is a gift from God freely given to those who claim it.  And if you are loved, don’t you, in return, want to love him who loves you — as you did Sadruk, who loved you?”

“I’d want to,” I agreed.

“Would it be easier if you started with Laïsha?”

I stared at her.

“When you love somebody, you’d do anything for him.”  Euthymios paused.  “Or for her.”  He seemed to be narrating my thoughts at this point.  “You hurt when she hurts, you worry when you’re apart, you want to bring her gifts and to wait upon her.  You listen for her bidding and eagerly do anything she asks.  You feel as though you can’t do enough for her, and, when she thanks you, you protest that what you’ve already done is far too little.”  He paused once more.  “Isn’t this the way you’ve come to feel about Laïsha?”

She still watched me, smiling that smile of total acceptance.

“Yes,” I said softly, turning back to look at Euthymios’s feet.  “That’s the way I feel about her.”

“Have you told her as much?”


“Do you want to tell her?”


“Before you do, think of it not as the love of a man for a woman, but as the love of one person for another person.  That may make it easier.”  He paused.  “Now, if you wish, tell her.”

I tried to look at Laïsha, and at last my eyes settled on her hands, which now rested on her knees.  That wasn’t looking high enough, though, I realized.  I had already laid my soul out like a doormat.  Nobody had stepped on it.  Now I was about to lift it and let everyone see underneath.  What did it hide?  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing was left.  My eyes climbed her chest and paused at her pale neck, then over her chin, which I now saw was slightly askew.  I paused again at her front teeth, the one a little shorter than the other.  They were plainly in view because she was smiling.  I found her eyes, looking large and dark against her pallid but clean face.  Her cheeks were tense, and as our eyes met she bit her lip, which pulled her jaw aside even more.

I took a step in her direction, pulled the stool before her, and I said, quietly: “I love you, Laïsha-Marhya.”  As one person to another? I asked inside myself.  Or man-to-woman?  It wasn’t clear to me then, but little did it matter, for I had simply come to love her, and whether it were romantic or Godly love was something I could sort out later.

“I love you, Kolyek,” she said quietly.

“Why do you love her, Kolyek?” Euthymios asked.

I didn’t have to think about this one.  “Because she needed me.  She was so vulnerable, and she accepted my care-giving.”  I could have gone on, but Euthymios was on a quest.

“And why do you love him, Laïsha?”

She spoke slowly, quietly, but with assurance.  “Because he cared for me without seeming inconvenienced by it, without seeking anything in return.  At first I couldn’t have loved him, because I was suspicious.  But now I see that even his elaborate tales were constructed to protect me.”

“So you love him, man-to-man, can we say?”

“Yes.”  Laïsha smiled.

“Do you accept her love, Kolyek?  It is freely given.”


“Now are you empty inside?”

“No.”  I think I smiled a little here.

“Good.  Let us go on.  So you came to love her because she needed you, as a helpless child needs a mother, and she loves you because you would do anything for her.  Now, do you accept my love, Kolyek?”


“Why do I love you?”  Maybe Euthymios knew, but I didn’t.

“Because I needed you?” I suggested.

“That’s part of it, but enough for the moment.  Do you love me?”



“Because… I see in you the love of God.”

“Kolyek!  Not so fast!  But you thrill me to say that!  So if I love you because you needed me, and you are returning my love because I cared for you without reservation, then why does God love you?”

“We need him.”

“As a chick needs the hen, as a child needs its mother.  And the mother can’t help but respond to that need.  The mother loves the child whom she created and who needs her.  She feels great tenderness for the child.  Such tenderness and hope God feels for you.  He offers you his love, and he has placed it in you at birth so that you can offer it back as well.  When you and God reach out to one another in love it becomes a bond between you, just as the love you share with a friend is a bond.  We all have the capacity to love, for God has placed that ability into each and every human being, even the feeble-minded.  But witness how easily it becomes overshadowed by our fears and our selfishness.  Still, God reaches out, and when suddenly you realize that you’re loved, you want to return that love, and so you do anything you think will please the one who loves you.”

“I understand.”

Euthymios continued: “And that explains the love I have for God.  I know I’m loved by him whose love is the highest to be prized.  And knowing that I’m loved by him overwhelms me.  I can’t do enough for my Father, who is in paradise.”  He paused.  “Are you still empty inside?”


“Now, what about peace?”

“I have opened myself to your love,” I assured Euthymios.

“Have you opened yourself to God’s love?”

“Not really, I guess.”

“Will you try to, in good time?”

“I’ll try.”

“Then in a few days we’ll discuss peace.”

“I love to watch Euthymios work,” Simonos told Laïsha, as if his brother weren’t present to hear the remark.

“Back to one thing,” Euthymios directed.  “You love Laïsha because she needs you.  Did you also love Davnoy?”

“No,” I answered honestly.

“Because he didn’t need you?”

“I can’t say why.  He was nobody to me.”

“That’s fair.  But, do you know that God loved him?  He needed God, didn’t he?  For if he had loved God, he would have led a different life and might be alive today.  Knowing that God loved him too, we have a job to do.  Tomorrow we shall conduct a memorial ceremony to commend his soul to God’s mercy.  We must do the same for Sadruk.  After that, Friend Kolyek, we shall see about peace.”

I expected that I would now feel uncomfortable around Laïsha.  But somehow it came naturally to both of us to behave toward one another with solicitous formality.  It was as if I desired nothing else in life but to attend her needs, and she wanted to assist me in everything and at the same time to assure me that my ministrations were having the utmost effect.

On this evening, while the brothers were on one of their frequent walks outside to test Simonos’s feet, I spent a brief time studying and tending to Laïsha’s chest wound.  First I washed it carefully to remove flaked skin and crusted body fluids which still oozed from it.  I wanted her to understand why I did certain things to her, since it was her body.  I told her some of what I know about blood — that it runs freely throughout the body and bathes the organs, that it dries when it is exposed to air, just as root crops dry in the air, that blood runs thicker if a person consumes large quantities of salt or spices and that it runs thinner when someone is warmed or eats warm food.  I told her that the heart appears to be the organ where blood is made and then is pumped to all the parts of the body, where it is turned into meat and flesh.

I finished washing her wound and dried it with a clean rag.  Then I pressed her chest firmly with my fingers, beginning in a wide circle around the injury and working toward the center.  For the first time, as I was doing this maneuver, she giggled.  I tried it again, and again she giggled.  Then we giggled together and embraced spontaneously.  There was an upsurge of affection between us as we hugged, (and I enjoyed a new consciousness of desire as my hands pressed her bare back in the embrace).  I think much of our ease with one another was rooted in the relief that we both felt for having unmasked and exposed ourselves so.  We could be friends now, although I could not comprehend how she could forgive both the grave misdeeds I had done as well as the lying.

Yet I did not doubt her forgiveness.  I only marveled at it.  Soon, as I continued to feel her ribs, pressing closer and closer to the visible wound, I touched a point that gave her pain.  When first she winced I was stricken with panic, that I had harmed her, or so she would perceive.

But no.  “It’s all right,” She assured me.  “If you need to know, it does hurt there.”  Then she laughed.

I continued my probing until I had delineated the area that I thought was still undergoing healing.  As I proceeded I explained my method to Laïsha.  I wanted to fix in my mind where she now felt pain so that I could tell, when I would once again examine her in the ensuing days and weeks, how her healing was progressing.  I knew already that I had pressed firmly and safely on places where my touch had previously caused her to recoil in agony.  But I hadn’t been observant before, and couldn’t gauge her progress as I now wished to do.  To help my examinations to follow, I delineated the painful zone by drawing a rough circle onto her chest using soot that I kept in a jar.  The mark would remain for a few days and then I would repeat the test.

At last I lightly touched the wide, raised triangle of new pink and red skin that covered the wound on her right flank.  To my surprise she didn’t feel a light touch at all.  For comparison I touched her left side in the same place and she wriggled away laughing.  What tickled her there she felt not at all on the right side.  I didn’t dare to press deeply against the new skin, for I knew that pressure applied there would hurt, and I didn’t trust the skin to be strong against the point of a finger.

“Do you care to try a deep breath?” I asked her.

“Often I have tried.  But it will not come.  I’m sorry.”

At last my examination was done and I found myself as before staring boldly at her chest, bared but for the band of light cloth that covered her breasts.  I looked up to her face, and she gave me a look of utter trust.  I wanted to stare for minutes longer — her breasts were much more loosely wrapped than originally, and their curves commanded my eyes.  I did look back down at them, but she clenched her elbows and drew her forearms over her chest.  Her expression implored me to give her credit for a little modesty.  So I did something that took me completely by surprise: I bent close to her wound and kissed the center of it.  Immediately I closed and fastened the upper part of her garment.  In my soul I knew that the kiss was a gesture of caring, even if medically useless.  I wanted so dearly to see her healed.  As we sat facing each other her look went from astonishment to love to a blush and then to practicality as she set about rearranging our sleeping situation.

The brothers returned, moved their things to my loft, and prepared their beds there.  I took the floor beneath Laïsha’s bed, which still stood next to the stove.

<Table of Contents> <Twelve> <Fourteen>  <People and Places>


The Dregovichian Hunter and the Pig
Perenemansk and Pinea

“There are things I have to tell,” I said when I could make myself talk.

“Wait first, please.”  It was Simonos.  “I think we must give some thought to the things that —” he stumbled for a name “— that Marhya-Laïsha has said.  See how she sighs with relief after her confession?  ‘A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.’”

Euthymios agreed.  “Laïsha?”

“Please call me that.”

“We were in and around Drizha for a number of weeks before advancing here,” Euthymios told us, “and there we met with many of the citizens.  It was not a pleasant town, and I did not feel our Master’s favor upon the place.  Nevertheless, we established a small congregation as a part of the church of our Master, and one day we will go back to see how it fares.  We left Drizha for a few days and traveled to a Tokharian settlement nearby, for Drizha seems to be on the route of many nomads who settle for a time in the steppe around the town.  When we returned to Drizha, we heard of this Raznoy.  Simonos knows what happened better than I.”

“A man by that name came to Drizha,” Simonos continued the explanation, “and lodged with a friend, apparently the same one with whom you and Davnoy stayed.”  He nodded toward Laïsha.  “The people said there was an argument between the guest, Raznoy, and the host.  Raznoy accused the host of lying about the whereabouts of his brother, who would be your very Davnoy.  Raznoy’s assertion was that the people of Pinea and nearby did not see him.  The people of Drizha did, and freely acknowledged that they had.  The houses in the woods between the two towns, yours, evidently, Kolyek, and Polotnoy’s, denied any knowledge of him.  The host in Drizha was affronted by the accusation.  Raznoy took out his sword, the host his ever-present ax.  Raznoy now lies in the care of a medicine woman there, and his host is badly wounded.  Raznoy will almost certainly lose an arm.  Yet even if he survives, they may execute him.  He had a guard of two men with him, and those of his guard have disappeared.  But of the brother, Davnoy, no one could tell, once he had left Drizha.”

It gave me small comfort.  Polotnoy, too, had lied about seeing the traveling couple.  He was shrewd.

“I cared not for Raznoy, either,” Laïsha said to no one in particular.

I appreciated Simonos’s advice, that we pause to think about Laïsha’s history.  In some ways I wanted desperately to be alone with her, to reassure her that her past in no way diminished her worth to me.  But what would she care of her worth to me once she learned of the death and desecration that had taken place by my hands?

So, now it was my turn to talk.

I asked the others whether I might be forgiven if I took a walk outside.  It was all right with them.

Once out in the open I wished that we could all take a walk together.  I trudged through some patches of thin moss that lay before the house and shuffled across newly bared ground, re-tracing the steps I had taken in the accomplishing of so many of the unseemly deeds I’d done.  I stood, dejected, at the edge of the brush pile.  I walked to the sand bank behind the house that had been my master’s grave.  I walked to the road and back.  At last I went behind the house and even paused where Yomo, the sow, had fallen after taking an iron rod through her windpipe.

Back inside I met the scent of incense and found Euthymios and Laïsha once again engaged in prayer.  Simonos hobbled toward me, when I entered, and drew me down to kneel at the bench inside my door.

“If you pray before you speak, you may know peace in your heart like never before, even as you tell what you have to say.  This minute, Laïsha prays for that very peace for you.  I cannot describe it, but if you wish to be happy even though you are burdened, you should ask God to grant you his peace.”

And so, to an unseen power, that seemed distinct from other gods chiefly in being benign, I prayed.  Simonos mumbled for several minutes in Greek, and I in turn translated to my own tongue and repeated what I could from what he said.  I believed, at least for part of the prayer, that I was talking to someone who listened.

When I had finished, Euthymios motioned me to sit before the stove.  “Laïsha has a request of you,” He said.  I turned to her.

“Forgive me — please, Kolyek?”

“You have committed no offense toward me, Dear Laïsha.”

“I have offended all of mankind.”

Somehow images came to mind that I did not summon: this sickly woman giving birth prematurely to a dead child, the attempt to murder, the slave being set free by the master’s wife, the woman’s thought to murder again…  These were offenses against all of mankind?  These were the grievous sins that she had committed?

“I have been unwise not to trust you,” she said, “and therefore I have kept things from you that you had every reason to know.  Yet, at first, when I was at my worst, I saw the hope of escape from my past, but only if you did not know me or whom to contact in regard to me.  You deserved more trust, and I denied you that.”

I extended first one arm, then two.  She rose and walked between them, and for the first time in my life I embraced a woman of my own age in true affection.

“So you see, Father Euthymios and Father Simonos,” said Laïsha, when, reluctantly, we had released each other, “even though we masqueraded as husband and wife, and slept together when others were present, in order to maintain the pretense, we have been discreet with one another.  What I have told you earlier is much more serious than lying together in sleep, and I have made my resolve not to resort to such dishonesty again.”

“Please sit,” Simonos asked everyone then.  Almost as if anticipating a minstrel, they took their places.  Laïsha would have had me sit beside her on the bed, but instead I drew toward me the bench from beside the door and rested on it.

I began with my past, that I was born a Dregovichian near the source of the Neman River.  I spoke about the stigma my birth had caused my mother, about outliving that curse, and about the horror of watching my brother drown.  That foolish venture, however, had been a show of enough bravery (or foolhardiness) to get me invited into the hunt the next autumn.

From that time in my youth and thereafter I was raised to be a hunter, and about six years before the present time I had come into Ukraina, the frontier between the ulus, or tribal lands, of the north and the civilizations to the south, with a party of my people on a year-long hunting expedition.

We had ranged far on this hunt, because the region of the upper Neman was being plundered more and more by hungry Varangians.  In addition, the area had been charred by a forest fire lasting for several weeks in the late summer and autumn just before our departure, driving wild game far from our grasp.  What was to be a seasonal laying-in of meat and furs became an ordeal of never-ending travel for me and for dozens of my kinsmen.

We sought brown bear furs and sable and ermine, and anything of worth that we could kill.  The bears we ate ourselves.  We found elk and beaver and sent their quartered carcasses quickly northward, cooled enough by the chill autumn air to assure their freshness for a few weeks.  We were a silent party, not interested in pillage or trouble.  We kept away from the towns, as attractive as some were from a distance.

I had been a good hunter up to about my fourteenth year.  After the first year’s hunt I remained with the unmarried men of the group and spent a leisurely and irresponsible summer with them fishing on a lake I knew not where, listening to the men brag about elk with broad antlers and women with broad hips.  The autumn of our third expedition I was just entering my fifteenth year and my reputation was secure, but for reasons I couldn’t then explain, I knew privately that my skill was failing.  Nevertheless, I set out with my party, and had some early success.  Older men and simpletons accompanied us for the purpose of transporting our bounty homeward, so I expected that if I failed miserably as a hunter, later in the trip, I could return as a bearer.

But the smaller squad that I was usually with included the leader of the whole expedition, and when he saw my mounting failures he became angry and challenged me with ever harder shots at game.  When I could hit nothing at all with arrow, stone, or spear, he took my weapons from me and stalked away.

I squinted always anyway, but when I reached this point in my reflections I made slits of my eyelids and looked from Euthymios to Simonos to Laïsha-Marhya.  They appeared to find the face I made amusing but it didn’t convey any information to them.  I had to explain: “I can’t see.  As a young hunter I was going blind.”  Euthymios, leaning forward, began rocking in position as if nodding that he understood.

I continued the story of my separation from the hunters.  I knew I was to consider myself abandoned when the leader had confiscated my weapons, and I stayed overnight where he’d left me, making a camp for myself at the confluence of a stream and a river, (the stream across the road from my present house and the river that runs by Gonashi’s pasture).

The next day I set out thinking to offer to rejoin my party as a bearer, but they had moved on.  They’d gone south, I knew, so I tried to follow.  Within a day, of course, I grew hungry.  I realized that I could too soon become lost, for south of this place I had not been before.  At least, with some luck, I could retrace my route homeward.  If I had gone southward another couple of days I would have come to the open steppe, but how could I have known?  In fact, my hunting companions must also have reached the steppe, and probably then had turned westward.

I was near despair when I found the road that passed Sadruk’s house, and Gonashi’s, and began walking east and north, toward Pinea.  The hunters had not used the road, of course, but now I headed homeward by way of this road.  I thought of what would await me there.  I would be ridiculed as a failed hunter and would be left to join the ranks of the simpletons and the desperately poor.  I had known of blind beggars, the most pathetic people I could imagine. And I shuddered to think of returning home only to become one myself.  At best, I could hope to live like my uncle Zhukin, already old, already ridiculed, already poor.

I continued into Pinea that day, after a stop at Gonashi’s house to beg food, and even though still starving and dirty, I presented myself with dignity to the magistrate as exactly what I was, an outcast hunter with poor vision, far from home in the northern forests.  I offered to apprentice myself to anyone anywhere he would direct me to go.

The magistrate himself, a man about ten years older than I, took me to his house and cleaned me and fed me.  He already had a slave and a paid servant, who, along with his family were all that he could feed, so even though he might have wanted to keep me to serve him, he could not, for he was not rich.  Instead, he told me of a couple of possible opportunities.  Bugra-dezhu, the old spell-casting diviner of Pinea, wanted an apprentice.  But the magistrate discouraged that course.  Instead, he sent a messenger to summon Sadruk, a different kind of physician, from his house deep in the woods.  Sadruk, already an older man, but with a son, Drukov, arrived late in the evening.  Appearing irate, he nevertheless welcomed the free service of a youth like me.  We spent half the night returning to his distant home, and we conversed without pause on the journey, which kept predators at bay while helping us pass the time and affording ample opportunity to become acquainted.

It was on this walk, using a road that Sadruk could follow in near-darkness, so familiar was he with it, that I learned of his parents’ origins in Bulgária.  His father, Agaruk, had run away from home during some violent upheaval in his homeland, joined with other families fleeing that unrest, and moved into the forest as far as this stream outside Pinea.  They had built huts, cleared some land (now reclaimed by the forest), and had grown some meager crops.  A girl of one such family, Ghia, later became  Agaruk’s wife, Sadruk’s own mother, and here Agaruk had built this house.

I learned a little of Sadruk’s own youth in these woods, collecting rocks, experimenting with insects.  He told me of his fascination with the Varangians who were bringing excitement into the region.  As a young man not wanting to miss that excitement, he left his parents to move into the village where he took a wife.  It was during one brutal winter in Pinea, several years later, when Sadruk’s wife died and his own father as well.  Sadruk and his son, Drukov, moved out to his  family home here by the stream.

The other Bulgárians had drifted on by then and the house stood alone.  Leaving Drukov with Ghia, the boy’s grandmother, Sadruk had gone off for his education-of-sorts in the mountains north of Greece and then returned to begin his work as a physician in the forest until such time as the dangerous old wizard of Pinea, Bugra-dezhu, might die.  And then, perhaps, Sadruk could move into the village as a proper physician.  To his great sorrow, Ghia became ill and did not live through another winter after Sadruk returned from the south.

+ + +

In the shadow of all his losses, Drukov was a happy, smart boy a little younger than I.  He quickly attached himself to me, a wild, wandering youth who had lived off the land since my boyhood.  I readily showed off all my knowledge of creatures and weather, foraging and inventing.  Since his knowledge was also about secrets of the forest — its herbs and other remedies, we found it great fun to share information.  While I quickly grew into a tall young man much hardened by my travels, though, Drukov was small like his father and was more at ease on his knees gathering leaves from ground plants near his home than wrestling a wounded deer in an icy stream.

Sadruk saw me first as a substitute for a wife, in cooking and housekeeping, that is.  But I showed such an interest in his fascinating skills that he took me as an apprentice, which the magistrate had foreseen even before Sadruk did.  Since I had made sure that I was a good housekeeper and a better cook, Sadruk found no reason to deny my additional desire.

My presence in the home made it possible for Drukov to get his wish.  After witnessing his mother’s prolonged suffering, he too wanted to become the best physician that he could be, but Sadruk would have been torn at the heart to let him go to Greece to study medicine and logic with the great teachers.  My apprenticeship to Sadruk, after a year of humble servitude, gave him the companionship and purpose to carry on at home and let his son go at the age of sixteen.  Two and a half years had passed since then and Drukov had returned once, just last summer, with reports that things were going splendidly well.

Then, perhaps because of my growing confidence as a healer, things began to grow worse for me again.  I had learned to copy Sadruk’s handwriting and to copy labels for medicine jars.  What I hadn’t learned so well was to identify dried, pulverized leaves and match their identity with their fresh counterparts.  One day, a few months past, Sadruk had discovered a serious error — serious, serious error, he repeated — in the way I had labeled a jar.  He dumped the contents onto the floor, and then, worse for me, he wept.

A few days later we started again at the beginning — five years of training lost, he kept mumbling, although I disagreed that the loss was total.  We had some fun for a while reviewing my learning, and I proved myself once more.

My confidence restored, I accepted a sufferer for treatment in Sadruk’s absence one day, a young man with sore throat and nausea.  I began with an infusion of dried philanthropos leaves steeped in hot water, which I instructed him to gargle once it had cooled sufficiently. By the time Sadruk returned the next afternoon I had treated the sufferer well, and together we sent him home, but I had contracted the disease that I had set out to drive away.

Sadruk prescribed for me a series of remedies, mostly brews to be consumed warm and with haste.  (Due to their general foulness of flavor I declined as often as I dared without offending him, preferring to endure the passing symptoms.)  Thus Sadruk treated me, and then, as I was recovering, he, too, was stricken.

Once under the power of this illness, my master applied the same regimen of herbs and minerals to himself.  He began his day of suffering with hyssop for breathing.  A while later he took a tea of ground thistle brewed with wormwood for fever and general listlessness.

The next preparation he called “the cure.”  It was convincingly bad-tasting, ugly to behold, and had a suitably immediate effect on everyone who submitted to it.

“The cure” was one of the truly effective treatments for symptoms of general malaise, even though it had to be repeated regularly until the sufferer’s body was sufficiently fortified that the spirit of the illness relented and sought another body to occupy, preferably that of a nuisance woodland creature.  It was not as complex a medicine as he pretended, but it was his favorite treatment for the townspeople.  He first made a paste of hot water infused with beets and the dried roots of polypody, gathered from under an oak.  This was to cleanse the bowels and expel tapeworms, if present.  But this material was of such a repulsive sweetness that he always combined it with a brew of centaury bitters and fennel, given to aid digestion, promote appetite, and stimulate blood grown sluggish over the winter.

One day Sadruk asked me to prepare the cure for him, and he watched me at every step.  As it cooled a little, though, he asked me to add salt.  I had done the same for myself once, when I was forced (by humility) to drink the cure Sadruk had made for me.  But I had several vials of salt that I have modified for specific purposes.  One of those included crushed Gangavadi seed that a traveler in Pinea had recently sold me to be blended in very small quantities with salt, due to its bitterness, and it was sure to induce overall liveliness and a desire to become very active.  I thought this would help Sadruk.  Occasionally I would dip a moistened fingertip into this little jar and then lay a few granules of this secret salt onto my tongue, to give me courage for spending a long day working outdoors, for example.

Sadruk had apparently found, as I had, that a little bit of plain salt lent a familiar flavor, almost like that of decaying meat, making the cure somehow less offensive, to my tongue anyway.  The salt modified with Gangavadi seed would help the flavor the same way, I said inside myself.

Sadruk watched approvingly as I sprinkled salt into his cure, but neither did he see which jar I had drawn it from nor did he even know of my new compound.  When I took it to him where he sat on a stool next to the simmering stove, a blanket over his shoulders, he sipped, adjusted his seat, mumbled some comments, sipped a few more times while mumbling, and then, all at once he glared at me in astonishment, his eyes changing from fear to loathing as he began to choke on the brew.  I rushed forward to help him, of course, but he writhed away, certain that I had poisoned him.

Still he choked, and then lost his breath altogether.  As he shot rigidly upward, I took the cup from him and drank its dregs to show him it was not as he believed, but he must have thought I was trying to kill myself also.

He died very quickly without regaining his breath.  And so I had to bury him.  I don’t know what caused me to scream inside myself more: that I was in serious trouble or… or that I had tortured and killed the only person in the world who loved me.

If I confessed his death, and especially any involvement in it, then surely I would be sentenced to die.  So I made up the story of his current journey to Bulgária and possibly even to Greece.

+ + +

I paused in my story and regarded my hearers.  They stared at me in silence, but with intent interest.

“Sadruk and I had a sow, Yomo, which was really his pet and companion,” I went on.  “Together they took walks and he fed her well.  She enjoyed the equivalent of a place at the table, for always there was a portion for her.  After Sadruk died, Yomo became upset, or so I deduce.  She often escaped.  On the day that Laïsha landed in my care, Yomo had again escaped, you see.”

I stopped and looked at them again.  “The telling is going to get very difficult for me here, so please give me your patience,” I begged them, “and your hearts.”  I leaned far forward on the bench, and at times rubbed my palms on my own ankles as I talked.

So at last I told everything about Yomo’s final escape and Davnoy’s death and how I’d dealt with that.  I told it all: of the things I had found on Davnoy and hidden in my lintel, of finding his neck ornament, of wanting to leave before Drukov’s return but being now held back, and happily so, by Laïsha’s dependence on me.  I even confessed my interest in seeing Laïsha undressed, necessary as it had been.  I don’t know when I began crying, nor how long it took to tell.  But I ended in sobs of relief, caring not whether I went now to my own death at the sentencing of the magistrate.  I only hoped to look up and see anything but hatred in Laïsha’s face.

<Table of Contents> <Eleven> <Thirteen>  <People and Places>


Marhya and Abru
Kiev and Pinea

Laïsha rose from the bed that morning, and sat with the brothers and me at my workbench, which also served as a table, and the four of us enjoyed a jolly time at breakfast.  Simonos had been entrusted on the journey with a block of sweet beeswax, and the remainder of this was divided among us against Laïsha’s protests and mine, for even though we both craved such a delicacy, it did not seem right to take it from those whose journey it made happier.  But we shared it just the same, and Simonos even argued that he could taste the treat in spite of his nose and throat malaise, which Sadruk would have called the “blockage.”

After we had finished, Euthymios stood ready to intervene as  Laïsha wobbled back to the bed and I made ready to see again to Simonos’s feet.  But he waved me aside, for there were other plans in their minds.  While Simonos ignited a brown nugget he called incense in order to fill the house with a sweet-smelling thread of smoke, Euthymios sat Laïsha on the side of the bed and drew a log up for a stool.  He motioned for me to join them.

“Kolyek, Kind Physician, I am sure you have treated your Laïsha very well.”  At this Laïsha smiled at me with a look of such kindness that it sent an uncommon warmness through me.  Euthymios went on: “I would do nothing that would diminish the effect of your ministrations.  But I think you would find the power of faith to be a dimension in your profession that you’ll want to consider.”

“I have given some thought to what you offered last night,” I said, “and I am not affronted.  I want to see the day that Laïsha can again stand erect and breath freely.  If there is a power to be called upon of which I know nothing, let me witness its effect.”

“It may not have an instantaneous effect, Kolyek.  God heals us according to our faith, yes, but also according to his own ways that we cannot comprehend.  All I ask, Kind Lady, is that you tell me you have faith in the healing power of God, given through his Spirit for the sake of Yeshua, Christos, to those who would receive it.”

“I am aware of this god,” Laïsha answered frankly, “the god of the Jews.  Always I have heard of various gods, but have derided them in my mind.  Now I am asked to call upon one, in faith, to hasten my healing.  If this god exists, I have offended it already.  Why would it hear me now?”

“Your offenses were forgiven before you were born.  For our sins and for those of all who would trust in him our Master and our God, Yeshua, the Christ, suffered death upon a cross.”

“I have heard of Yeshua, a prophet of ancient times, and one too gentle to take up a sword against his enemies,” Laïsha commented knowledgeably.

“Ancient, it is true.  It has been over eight hundred years since God walked this earth in the person of his son.  But you cannot dismiss the fact that people who lived then were just as real as people today.  And this prophet, as you know him, was not so kind as he was wise, for instead of the sword, he taught love for one’s enemies, a more potent weapon than any object that fits a soldier’s hand.  Friend Laïsha, there has always been only one God.  Others of which you’ve heard and in which you’ve lost faith are created by people.  The true God offers you healing, and much, much more, but he requires your faith.  Do you believe?”

Laïsha sighed, winced, and waited.  Then she looked up and said: “I believe.  I believe because I want there to be such a god.”

“You must trust without reservation.  You must not suspect that it can be any other way,” Euthymios counseled.

“You press me for total submission!”

“You must trust!  But trust not me.  Trust God to use me.”

“I shall trust God,” Laïsha said confidently.

“Then pray with me.”  And with this, Euthymios knelt beside his stool, leaned toward Laïsha, and gripped her head.  He said some words in Greek, and then spoke for several minutes in our Slavonic tongue, often making precise gestures in the air with one or both of his hands.

As soon as Euthymios stopped I could not recall the things he had said, but the assurance and the faith those words carried were more heartening than anything I’d ever heard before.  When he abruptly stopped praying he lowered his hands and then excused himself to go into the corner where he had prayed the night before.

Simonos was smiling.  Laïsha stared into the wall.  I sat meekly, awaiting a cue from somebody.  At last Laïsha turned to me and mimicked a shrug.  She lay back down while I assisted her.

“Is it…?” I began.

“It’s just the same,” she said quietly.

Later that morning I gave Euthymios some information about Pinea.  We talked about the citizens, the site of the town, the few people who, as I, lived along the road and elsewhere in the woods about.  He wanted to know all he could about the young magistrate, whom he called the archon.  “It baffles me why God would choose such an outpost,” he said, “with so few people so far from, if you’ll excuse the apparent insult, ‘civilization.’  But we will seek believers and start a church here.  I hope there is someone in whose capable hands we can leave the congregation’s leadership once it is time for us to move on.  But we will not be defeated by doubts and foot problems.”

I tended Simonos’s feet, finally.  They were much improved, although we did not discuss the reason, whether my treatment of him or whether his own prayers had been responsible.  Thus the thought took form, that faith was another key element in the process of healing, along with proper medicine, determination, and a calm, conducive atmosphere.

Once again, later in the afternoon, Euthymios prayed with Laïsha.  Following this he was brooding.  The second night our sleeping arrangement was the same as the first.  The next morning his brooding was like a gloom, and even the bright sunshine pouring in from the open window did not dispel it.  He helped me with some chores outside the house while Simonos and Laïsha carried on some intellectual discussions inside.  Presently, when we all happened to be inside and assembled closely in one area, Euthymios said: “There is a spirit of concealment here.”  He looked from Laïsha to me.  “God will hear your prayers but will be confused by them, even though you have faith, if your heart is unclean.  For as I have said, Yeshua died to forgive those things which would make us unclean.  But we must claim that forgiveness.”

And so, as I sat on the edge of the bed with Laïsha propped erect beside me, we had a lesson in two concepts new to me: repentance and forgiveness.  Forgiveness I thought I understood already, in the sense that I was accustomed to being ridiculed by others for my poor eyesight, and I often even ridiculed myself for my procrastination and other such faults in my character.  Those who ridiculed me, I forgave.  I never suspected, though, that I had wronged anyone in my life — such that I should seek someone else’s forgiveness.  Even my master’s death, although arguably of my own doing, was not something for which I felt the need to be forgiven.  Repentance, an attitude of being sorry, of being humble before the offended and asking to be given a way to compensate for the offense, was an entirely new concept.

When the lesson was done I continued looking at the floor.  I thought of the look of kindness that Laïsha had cast upon me the previous day.  I thought about my own hope for this new method.  I thought about the logic in the idea that God can’t heal where there’s an unclean heart or a lack of faith — where a person is not honest with God.

I thought about my lies.  What should I do?  Of course I had never wanted to begin the fabrications in the first place, and often I had wished I could tell Laïsha that I’d been making it all up.  And I just might have succeeded in walking away soon and leaving it all behind, lies intact, if it hadn’t been for the rumored wolves, my unnamed feelings for Laïsha, and now this new god.

Yet how could anything I’d done dishonestly be an impediment to Laïsha’s healing?  That seemed unfair, so it must be some small thing in Laïsha’s heart that was unclean.  Even if I had things to hide, that didn’t alter the fact that in my humble house she had received the best medical care anywhere nearby.  I looked up from the floor ready to give them my most confident expression.  Laïsha met my gaze and for a long time we studied one another.  I had so often applied my skills to the healing of her facial abrasions that it made me not the least self-conscious to look directly at her as she regarded me in return.  And I realized that from this distance her face, although gaunt and missing most of the hair of her brows and lashes, appeared fully healed.  The light scratches were gone without a trace as was the bruise on her cheekbone.  And I could no more detect the larger cuts that had gone across the bridge of her nose and over her forehead.  Furthermore, to my distinct pleasure, I saw the faint shadow of fuzz returning to her eyebrows.  My visual examination turned to admiration for her femininity as I studied the angle of her nostrils and the pinkness of her lips.  At last I looked into her clear, green-brown eyes, and they looked willingly into my worthless blue ones.  We held one another’s eyes for a long, pleasant moment before her gaze slowly dropped.

Yet for all this that was pleasant to see, she was in another way the most pathetic sufferer that I had ever seen.  She sat on the edge of the bed, shoulders hunched, pale, her hair lifeless and once again dirty, her body thin, her entire being totally at my mercy.  She was a tiny wisp of suffering humanity which had not yet driven back death.

As I mentioned, I was prepared to give the brothers an expression of confident self-assurance.  But something in Laïsha’s returning beauty combined with her complete weakness touched me as never before, and there was nothing I would refuse to do to make her better.  If that meant confessing, even though she would despise me, then I saw that I must confess so that this god would absolve her of my sins.  For it must have been my sins that were oppressing her.  What could she have to hide?

My resolve thus weakened, I was about to open my mouth when Laïsha said, turning to Euthymios mid-way through the sentence: “We have slept together but are not married.”

There was a pause.

“That can be remedied,” an amused Simonos said finally, from his seat by the fire, in a voice that reminded me of a talking donkey.  “‘A wife of noble character is her husband’s crown, but a disgraceful wife is like decay in his bones.’”

“Brother!” Euthymios reprimanded him, as if there were insult in his words.  Turning back to Laïsha, he paused and then said: “You have done well to confess it, and you are forgiven, for you are repentant in the confession of it, but you must be determined not to persist in this sin.  My brother is right; we can perform with you the sacrament of marriage.”

Laïsha looked at me with apparent alarm, and I fear that my return look reflected the same emotion.  “We have only slept, mind you, Holy Father,” Laïsha tried to explain.  We could both tell that the distinction was unimportant to him.

“But I still discern a spirit of concealment present — not of things concealed from us,” Euthymios looked at each of us in turn, “but of things you have concealed from one another.”

I knew then that it had to be my lies, for if this man were gifted with such discernment, then a god — God himself — had to be enlightening him.  And I could only conclude that my wrongs, my sins as the brothers called them, were affecting the effect of my ministrations as a physician.  In my mind I could see Laïsha’s hand slipping symbolically from mine forever as I opened my mouth to speak.

Once again Laïsha spoke before me: “You are right, Friend Euthymios.  I have concealed much from many people, you and Kolyek among them.”  She looked at me, and her lip quivered.  “Oh, Kolyek!  You have been so kind, and I so suspicious of you!”

I turned on the bed and moved to sit nearer her, taking her hands.  Now she sobbed.

“I have hidden many things from you, Laïsha, even terrible things!” I told her.  Then for a minute we both talked at once, each insisting that the other listen first.

Finally, though, Euthymios intervened.  “What you have to tell, Friend Kolyek, can be told, but our lady has begun.  Will you agree to let her finish?”

Confused to imagine that she could have any secrets, I agreed.  Still, Euthymios held the interruption: “Do you prefer, Laïsha, to talk alone with Kolyek?”

“Do you bring our confessions before the magistrate?” she asked sincerely.

Simonos and Euthymios together denied that they would, and I wondered what could prompt Laïsha to wonder such a thing.

Euthymios assured her that her confession was between her, the person affronted by her sin, and God.  His rôle, he said, was to be God’s agent for absolution, reconciliation, and healing.

“I will tell all of you the truth about myself,” she began quietly.  “I have treated you and others very badly, and I have been dishonest.”

“It cannot be compared with the things I’ve done against you, and others,” I said.  I turned my head away in shame when I said this.  Laïsha loosed her hands from mine and straightened her back, in order to appear more formal.

“Before I came here, about five weeks ago, I was not known as Laïsha but as Marhya.  I am a Khazar, born of a wandering Persian father and a Varangian mother.  Well, he was a wandering Persian until about the time I was born, but he became a very powerful trader in Etil, where I was raised.”  Laïsha glanced expectantly at the two visitors.  They were both motionless and stared back with their mouths open.  “Etil,” she repeated, “near the Caspian Sea.  My mother has the white skin and fair hair of the Varangians, but I have my father’s blood for darkness.”  She looked at her hands and then smiled weakly.  “I have never before been this pale.”

The brothers became animated for a moment, and one of them asked, hesitantly: “Are you of the Jewish faith?”

Laïsha, or Marhya, answered: “No, although I was exposed to it all through my childhood.  My father, in his youth, became a trader, mainly in weapons and things made of metal but did poorly then.  Once he settled in Etil he became very influential in the managing of caravans.  He arranges the passage of all goods through the Khazar Kaganate of Nisi ben Menasseh.  Since Nisi is converted to Judaism, so are many in Etil.  But Vennamar, my father, is too proud and powerful to need gods.  If it suits his business, my father pretends to be Jewish.  But I was never taught its tenets.

“Years ago Vennamar had dealings with a certain wealthy merchant of Dneprokiev whose name is Abru.  Unfortunately, my father became deeply indebted to Abru, and risked losing all trading opportunities on the Dnepr River.  But he made an agreement to absolve his debts, and as part of that agreement I was given —” she shuddered as if a draft had blown across her “— I was given to Abru as a hostage, and ever since then I was used as a household slave.  This was three and a half years ago, and I was in my fourteenth year of age.

“I didn’t understand the arrangement very well at first.  I wondered: If Abru was to receive a slave as payment of a debt, why wasn’t any other slave just as valuable?  If merely a slave, why was I kept to the gentler tasks within the master’s house?  But I was a hostage, you see, and I think Abru was constrained to anticipate the day he might need to return me to my father.

“My mother was greatly upset with the deal, for we were close.  I have two younger sisters, and I still fear for their fate, knowing that my father is capable of using his children as collateral.  Actually, Abru’s house was a desirable home, and Abru’s principal wife was very kind to me.  She took me as her own servant.  Always our relationship was formal, but I was so grateful for being allowed into her chamber that I served her enthusiastically.  They had other slaves, and they also have two sons.  Raznoy, who was here a few days ago, is the older, and married.  Davnoy is the younger, a year younger than I.”

At the mention of these names, the brothers exchanged glances.  Laïsha and I both realized that they must know something.  She went on to explain that the names of the sons were intentionally numerical — Son-of-Abru-one (Raznoy) and Son-of-Abru-two (Davnoy), a custom among the merchant class, to stress before the world that here were people who knew how to manipulate numbers.

“I suppose I was beginning to accept my lot as a slave, but then a year ago, Davnoy forced himself upon me.”  Laïsha paused, but still looked at the floor.  Her eyes seemed to regard all of our feet.  “I did not want him, I did not encourage him, but I was now only a slave and could not refuse him.  Apparently I was chosen by his father and by his brother to ‘initiate’ him.

“Seven months later I gave birth to a lifeless, very tiny baby.”  Laïsha’s eyes reddened and glistened.  She gnawed her lower lip.  Straightening, perhaps in order to appear more in control, she added: “Abru’s wife was forbidden to attend to me during the birth, and I made a mess of the job with the help of a younger slave girl.”

She shook back the hair from over her eyes.  “Davnoy persisted with me anyway.”  Now she panned around at the faces of three silent men.  We waited.  “I had been raised a privileged girl, you understand.  I thought I would become a good wife for a good man of means.  I had learned much about the world and might even have learned some skill useful in commerce.  Being a slave was not so bad, though, until I saw my chance and dream to become such a wife plundered by the assaults of the rough and unkind Davnoy.

“And yet, he believed that he was not so unkind.  He bought me things, including clothes, that no slave could be expected to own.  I was flattered, of course, but worried that Abru, his father, might discover these new possessions of mine and that Davnoy would deny giving them to me.  Then I would be left alone to explain against Davnoy’s denials.”  Laïsha-Marhya paused and relaxed her posture.  Tentatively, she looked about at the rest of us, and then lowered her eyes to go on.

“I know that I was becoming a distracted and unhappy servant.  Strangely, too, I was being assigned to harder and harder work.  It’s not that I resist hard work.”  She held out her damaged but healed hands for a moment and rotated them before us.  “After I lost the baby, I was made to lay a paving of flat stones in Abru’s yard.  It was a punishment, and I don’t know for what.  But my hands will always remember.

“Finally, I went to Davnoy’s mother.  I feared to do it, for a merchant’s wife has little authority, and this one was loyal to her husband and sons in every way.  She knew that if either of her sons desired me, then she was helpless to intervene.  There was nothing she could do to persuade them, really.  But she told me to be strong because better days were coming my way.  I didn’t know what she meant.

“Abru’s wife had been nearly as heartbroken as I when the baby was lost.”  Again Laïsha looked at me for understanding.  I think I grasped her meaning: Even though it was Davnoy’s child, it was also his mother’s first grandchild.  I nodded.  Laïsha turned to the others: “Then they acquired a new slave girl, a large and unperturbable Varangian.  She was a gift from Kunedsi, the Varangian who pretends to rule Dneprokiev, but with Abru’s indulgence, and for whom Abru exacts the taxes.  I knew what had happened to my mother, also a slave in the house of my father in her childhood, and I expected the same might become of me: that I would become a second and secret wife to Davnoy, after he would first be married to one of his own people.  If I weren’t there, this could be the expected fate for the new slave girl of Abru.

“For many weeks I tried to resign myself to becoming Davnoy’s property.  And, I suppose that if I had been raised poor and without hope, I would have considered it a desirable fate.  But the boy is self-important beyond description, and although he has given me many fine things, he is also vicious.  He takes delight in killing people for imagined offenses, animals too.  This may be his right, but it upsets me.  And, as I’ve mentioned, I had greater ambitions than to become his silent property.

“Finally, I cared not for the consequences.  I poisoned Davnoy, or tried to.  It was his nighttime wine and I poisoned it with dried atropa berries, and he became very sick that same night.  But curiously, early the next morning, his mother rushed me to the river docks and placed me aboard a raft laden with furs, bound for the sea.  She said to me: ‘Poor Girl, the debt was repaid long ago,’ meaning that Abru should have turned me over to Vennamar some time ago.  The only other thing she said to me was something like: ‘May the wind god take you home.’  By this I concluded that she meant ‘home to Etil.’

“There are no caravans bound from Dneprokiev directly to Etil at this time of year, so she could not send me that way, and I doubt that she would have done so anyway, because I surely would not have survived a slow overland passage without the company of other women.”

Simonos said, without looking up from his ailing feet: “Caravan attendants have too much idle time and opportunity; you would have suffered.  And you would too easily have been caught.  On the river, the merchant’s wife was able to slip you away quickly, and communication is poor between the water and the land.”

“Still, it’s a wonder that you made it this far,” added Euthymios, oblivious to what he was yet to hear.

Laïsha continued: “The boatmen are a more trusted lot, even though rough and brutal among themselves.  I don’t know whether she paid a passage or bribed a boat hand, but I was gone that same hour.  She did give one of the boatmen a document, but I saw no money handed over.  This was about six weeks past.  I was well-treated on the raft, like a child, actually, the temper of which I assumed as a manner of self-defense.  I suspect that she warned them also that I was Davnoy’s property and that anyone who would touch me would answer to her son.

“I didn’t know what I would do, of course.  I could try to return to my father’s house, to Etil, my home city.  I had no instructions from the wife of Abru, but I understood that she was secretly giving me my freedom.  Evidently she deduced that she was soon going to lose my personal services when I would be taken away to satisfy her son, so if she was going to lose me, then she must have concluded that she may as well set me free.  I was free of slavery, then, if I could figure a way to protect myself all the way from the Black Sea to Etil by way of my father’s boats and caravans.

“The river passage was slow.  The raft often became lodged in ice and ran aground repeatedly, and the load was portaged many times.  Before it reached the seven rapids of the lower Dnepr, Davnoy hailed it from along the right bank, where he waited with an elegant carriage.  You see, the poisoning had not worked, and, even though he deduced what I’d done, he never told his mother or anyone else.  They knew only that he was very ill for a day.

“He persuaded the boat master that I was being recalled to Dneprokiev and that he was sent to retrieve me.  His authority to recall me exceeded his mother’s authority to release me.  So I was placed ashore in his care.  I think that he had stolen the carriage, a handsome one imported from Venezia or someplace, from his father’s stables, for he certainly would not otherwise have traveled that distance without the company of soldiers.

“He had brought the clothes along that he had bought for me, and insisted I dress like a lady.  He told me that, if I would do his bidding, that is, grant him willingly the favor of my body, then he would tell no one of my attempt to kill him.  I might as well say that it became my intention to attempt it again, and before he could succeed in bringing me all the way back to his home.”

Laïsha turned sharply to me.  “I had no such urge to harm you, Master Kolyek,” she professed.  It struck me as a curious thing that she called me master, after denying any intention to let herself be cast in that rôle under Davnoy.

She breathed deeply and then went on: “Soon after we left the shore of the river we came upon a band of Magyars traveling westward.  Davnoy pretended to befriend them, for he had not prepared well for food or shelter on this journey, and they could give us both.  Even though his carriage was fancy, and so was our dress, he pleaded poverty, and so they let us accompany them.  They fed us, and the women sometimes made fun of my clothes and my long hair.  We traveled for four or five days to reach Drizha.  Davnoy stole a ram from the Magyars’ herd the morning we separated from them and turned toward Drizha, but the ram proved too wild and Davnoy slew it soon after.

“In Drizha we stayed with an acquaintance of one of Abru’s boatmen.  Mercifully, the trip was cold and very difficult for Davnoy as conductor of a horse-drawn carriage.  He had little time to think about menacing me, and I remained still and silent.  At the home of this acquaintance in Drizha they treated me as a betrothed and kept us apart in the sleeping quarters, for Davnoy played the part of the groom-to-be, and, to make him less suspicious of me, I played a quiet but pleasant maiden.

“The following day, we left the plain and entered these woods.  We were told we could look for the hostel of Polotnoy, and we found it without difficulty after two days and one very cold night in the woods.  Davnoy was distressed with the road he had chosen.  He often had to get down and push the carriage or pull the horse, and he complained that his clothes were being ruined.  More than once he — he struck me across the face for putting him through so much trouble.

“The next day we raced onward.  As often as I could I curled up on the boxes behind the driver’s bench and tried to nap.  This is where I lay when suddenly the carriage was turning upside down and was crushed.  This was a month ago, was it, Master Kolyek?”

I patted her hand in reply.  It had been a little more than that.

“So here I am, a fugitive slave, and one guilty of poisoning her master.”

“You spoke of Raznoy?” Euthymios asked.  Simonos leaned closer to hear.

“Yes,” Laïsha answered.  “He was here some days ago, but he did not recognize me.  I —” she looked at me “— I have altered my appearance so that I would not be found.”

“And what of Davnoy?” Euthymios wondered.

I was too paralyzed to speak first, so Laïsha answered: “He went to Pinea to have the carriage repai…” she trailed off and turned to me.  I must have been white.  All their eyes were upon me.

<Table of Contents> <Ten> <Twelve>  <People and Places>


Euthymios and Simonos

I knelt and peeked through a crack low in the door.  Two men stood just outside, robed in furs, laden with packs and dragging a litter burdened with more packs.  With heads thrown back they were bellowing a song that was mournful, and, if better sung, might have been truly beautiful.  I thought I discerned a few words of Greek in their lyrics.  I doubted that they saw me peeking, so I rose and eased open the door.  The larger of the two then looked at me but kept on singing.  The other, who did not look, seemed to be leaning heavily upon his companion.  I watched a bit longer, and then abruptly they stopped.  I stared at them for some time longer, and they at me.  But what could I do?  For as I held open the door, the bite in the air told of an especially cold night ahead.  Here it was nearly bedtime and they with no shelter but what I could offer.

I looked over toward Laïsha.  “They are Greeks,” she said, “singing a song of praise to their god.”

“I thought so,” I agreed vacantly.  Turning back to the singers I bowed and motioned for them to enter.

“Peace be upon this house!” said the taller, more alert one in a fluid likeness of our Slavonic tongue, and he touched the lintel as he ducked and followed me inside.  He was bearing up the other, who repeated the “Peace” as I moved to help support him.

“You have chosen wisely to accept us,” the alert, tall one said cheerfully.  “I am Euthymios, although not the Seleucian Hermit of the same name from Mount Athos, and this is my brother Simonos.”

Simonos nodded firmly, but with pain.

“We have traveled from Greece and have spent a glorious spring in the land of Boris, the Khan of Bulgária — a brilliant ruler although not yet ready to accept the message of the Gospel.  But, while there, we have better learned to speak your language — see how we barely move our lips!” Euthymios announced gaily, and as he spoke, I suddenly felt very weak, cold, and pale.  Did they seek Sadruk, my master?  Sadruk had spoken of passing through Bulgária, somewhere in the direction of Greece.  Would others, such as the magistrate of Pinea, inquire whether these Greeks had brought word of my master?  (I had let it be supposed lately that he was even now in the Bulgar mountains or in Greece.)

“You are in need of medical care,” I observed as we lowered Simonos to the bench inside the door.  He nodded.  “And I am a physician of Greek training,” I added.  He glanced up with a pathetic look of hope in his weary eyes.

“Did you hear that, Brother?”  Euthymios clapped him on the back, knocking the fur wrap from Simonos’s thin shoulders.  “Did I not say, when you offered to lie down in the road and die only two stanzas ago, that if we sing ‘Come Faithful, Raise the Song’ our Master would surely come to our aid?”  Inhaling earnestly, Euthymios spread his arms as if to embrace the house. “And did I not quote, first: ‘O, that I had in the wilderness a lodging place for travelers!’  And then say, only moments later: ‘Brother, I see the smoke of a hearth!’?  And is this just any house, Simonos?  No!  In all the world, it would be the home of a physician!  ‘Honor the physician for his services, for our Master created him.  His skill comes from the Most High.  Our Master has created medicines from the earth, and a sensible man will not disparage them.  Our Master has imparted knowledge to men that by their use of his marvels he may win praise; by using them the physician relieves pain.  There is no end to the works of our Master who spreads health over the whole…’”

“Brother, cease!” Simonos pleaded.

“I was almost finished,” Euthymios countered defensively.  Then, turning to me: “I was commending you with the words of Yeshua, son of Sirach, whose words of wisdom no doubt are still alien to you.”

I was being honored, somehow, I supposed.  But then Simonos seemed to insult me, croaking: “‘Our good Master gave us this natural attribute: When a sick man sees his physician, he rejoices, even though, perhaps, he gains nothing from him.’  Thus I challenge you, Physician, with words from the Ladder of Giannis Climacus.”

Without their furs, the men both looked younger than they had at first.  Euthymios appeared to be the elder of the two, tall, dark-complected, and blessed with rich, curly, dark brown hair.  Without his outer wraps he still wore a peculiar, tall black cap.  Simonos was shorter, similar in rounded features, but devoid of top hair.  He had come inside wearing a similar hat but it now lay atop the furs he had lowered to the floor.  His head was loosely covered by a thick black hood attached to his robe.  His head was bald and shiny only on the top, but naturally so and not shaven.  From one ear around the back to the opposite ear he had a band of thick, black hair that curled toward his shoulders.  Both men had dark beards that hung long and curly, groomed square below the neck.  Each man wore a prominent ornament over his chest, suspended around the neck.  In both cases it was a dull-metal cross, that of Euthymios with more artistry applied to the ends and edges.

Euthymios spoke our language, interspersing a pleasing and sometimes comical mixture of words from Greek or other languages.  He kept up a constant effusion of such talk as I tried to gain Simonos’s attention and learn what his trouble might be.  It turned out that his feet were both frozen and swollen, the skin cracked but too cold to bleed.  What’s more, his throat was raw and sore, which may have accounted for some of the offensiveness of the singing.

The shoes the pair wore were constructed of bark, lined with fleece and bound with strips of leather.  I slowly and gingerly removed Simonos’s shoes while he looked skyward and winced in agony.  Euthymios hovered over his brother’s feet as well and explained that the light footwear in which they had set out from Greece had disintegrated before they were out of sight of the Black Sea.

“We lost our donkey yesterday,” Simonos remarked.  I must have appeared confused, for he went on immediately as massaged one foot: “She had become weak already, so we gradually shouldered most of her load, and then, yesterday…”

“She died?” I asked.

“Simonos nodded, apparently too broken-hearted to answer aloud.

“We had passed a little house early in the morning,” Euthymios began.  “We spent the night on the ground almost within sight of that house but didn’t know it was there.”

“Polotnoy’s house,” I told them.  “I wonder why he wasn’t home.”

Simonos continued: “So, we passed the house, and the donkey became restless, as if wanting to turn in there…”

“What is this?” I heard Euthymios exclaim suddenly, behind me.  I had been trying to ignore his other exclamations until I heard this.  He stood erect and faced the bed.  “Woman, are you ill?  Simonos, how provident!  Dear Physician, is this your wife?”

I looked at him and then at Laïsha.  She was lying in bed, still suffering her persistent nausea, but in this instant was staring at the three of us clustered opposite the door.  I looked back at Euthymios and nodded.

“Then it is to your benefit as well as ours that we have found each other!” said the man who sounded like a talking trumpet.

I explained that Laïsha had suffered a crushing blow to the ribs in an accident, and that more recently she had been suffering the effects of a plague-like illness.

I prepared a dish of cool (to him, warm!) water for Simonos to soak his feet.  Gently I washed them and lightly massaged them, then left him thus on the bench to rest and soak.  When I’d straightened, I introduced myself, Kolyek, and identified my lady as my wife Laïsha.  I thought she groaned when I said this, and I half looked at her to see her gazing at the roof in apparent resignation to the masquerade.  I judged the two men to be in their early thirties, while I was right around twenty-one and my lady almost eighteen but looking greater than thirty.

“You may be fortunate,” Euthymios announced, “for I am known as a healer also, although it is not I but my Master who heals through me.  Simonos has the gift as well.  Am I right, Brother?  Simonos has many unusual gifts.  Perhaps, Woman, you will tell us of your trouble before long, that we can have a prayer for your recovery.”

“It may be well to start with Simonos, here,” I suggested, “for his affliction is acute and perhaps the more serious.  While she is truly ill, Laïsha has been improving steadily.”

“I would accept prayers,” she said faintly, and the rest of us fell briefly silent.

Euthymios advanced to the bed and dropped to his knees beside her.  “You are a disciple of the Christ, then?” he asked hopefully.

“No.  But I have heard of your religion and your god.  I would gladly consider what your god may do for me, and I in turn for it.”

“Oh, Simonos!” Euthymios gushed, back on his feet.  “Do miracles take place in a vacuum?  Did you hear the woman?”  He turned back to Laïsha.  “We shall be about it, then, soon.  Very soon.  But it takes concentration.  I think first we should discuss arrangements for our board and for the services your husband is rendering.”

“You may stay,” I said flatly.

“And we will pay!”  Euthymios withdrew a purse from within a pouch that he wore and placed two small ingots of silver onto the shelf at the rear of the house which I use as a cooking area.

“We are near Pinea, are we not?” Euthymios asked.  I nodded.  “Did I not tell you, Brother…?”

“Yes, yes,” Simonos interrupted him, annoyed.

I wanted to laugh, and inwardly rejoiced to see that Simonos had a spirit after all, even though it was sorely repressed by his affliction.

“We are entering a new region, Simonos.  This will be the northerly limit of our journey.  Oh, My Friends, it has been a difficult trip, for we left only weeks ago from an area bathed in sunshine and the flowers of spring, and have walked steadily backward into winter.  And yet, this is not our first suchjourney, merely our longest so far.”  (I said inside myself: Turgey would seize this speech as evidence of his experience with the interminable winter he had described to me.)

Euthymios was holding forth: “We have come to bring the good news of Yeshua, Christos, to the people of this frontier called Ukraina.  ‘Yeshua,’ we say, but in this region the Master’s holy name sounds more like ‘Yesha.’”  (If there was a difference, I didn’t detect it.)

“Tell them who we are,” Simonos rasped, more as a suggestion than a command.  I added more warm water to his foot bath.

“Thank you, Brother, yes,” said Euthymios.  “Dear Quiet People, I have told you our names; I am Euthymios…”

The one with hurting feet leaned toward me, clearly intending to interrupt: “In his youth we called him ‘Euphorios.’”

The orator went on as if no such remark had been made: “Simonos and I are born of the same womb, I before him.  And we are brothers in our relationship to Yeshua, Christos, our Master and advocate.  Simonos is a hieromonk, although not a megaloschemos like our associate, Mefhodi (perhaps you’ve heard of him).  Simonos comes from the Monastery of Saint Giannis the Forerunner at Stoudios.  I am a bishop in the service of our Patriarch, Photios of Konstantinopolis, although no one would call me ‘Little Father,’ or Batyushka, in your tongue.  You may address either of us as ‘Holy Father.’”

I agreed with him there, I said inside myself; Batyushka did not fit his size.  Euthymios was quite near my idea of a giant, with flowing dark hair, while his blood brother, his head bald as an eyeball, was as small and fine-boned as a callow youth still yearning for whiskers.  Of whiskers, however, both men were well equipped.  As for ‘Holy Father,’ this title sounded frankly ridiculous, so I let it pass.

“We hope to establish a northern congregation of believers somewhere here in the frontier of Sarmatia — in Pinea perhaps, and once done, to move eastward into the region of the Khazars.  Our former abbot at Polychrono, Mefhodi of Thessaloniki, and his brother-by-birth as well as in-the-Christ, Konstantin, have by this time opened the land of the Khazars to receive the things we have to teach.  We are to explore this area and then make our way eastward to join with them as they meet with the Kagan of the Khazars.”

“We are the parabolani…” Simonos groaned as he shifted his feet in the bowl, “…the risk-takers.”

“Simonos is referring to a Turkic people who worship Tangrï,” Euthymios added in assent.  “I fear — no, I imagine that our risk is great.  For, as we have entered this land, ‘we have had no rest and we have been afflicted at every turn, troubles all around us and fears within.’”

“‘Your garments did not wear out on you, nor did your foot swell these last forty days,’” Simonos taunted.  Through the coming weeks we would hear the brothers banter this way nearly every day: making conversation using lines of ancient scripture.

Euthymios was unperturbed: “Ah, good brother, but I too feel chastened.”  Then he resumed: “Many missionaries of the church have suffered terrible adversity at the hands of these and other pagan followers.  We have not come alone, though,” Euthymios announced as if practicing to give a speech before an assembly of hundreds.  Pacing our small house, he went on: “We have merely plodded ahead of our fellow-travelers, because we believe other teachers of the Gospel have not ranged this deeply into this forest.  We set out by sea from Konstantinopolis, bound for Cherson or Theodosia, but were driven ashore in a storm and landed near Varna.  There we decided to wait many weeks until we were blessed to join with a small caravan which included others of our mission also bound for Semender.”

As he was thus speaking, I was bustling between Laïsha and Simonos, listening but giving little thought to his oration.

Euthymios continued: “After some days we took our leave of that slow procession, though, and came on ahead, going where God might lead us, but we are pledged to rejoin our caravan at the crossing of the Dnepr, or at Cherson if they have already crossed the River.  People of our mission now seem to be swarming all over Sarmatia.  We enjoy an adventure, do I not speak truly, Simonos?”

“My feet have enjoyed the thrill of our adventure more than any other of my parts, Euthymios,” came the glum reply.

Then, from Euthymios: “We are no longer the fleet-of-foot, I admit.”

Turning to me, Simonos explained: “We are the diplomats, the fleet-of-mind.  As I feel right now, though, I’d trade half my diplomat’s mind for a pair of mercurial feet.”

This itinerary told me nothing useful, but I accepted it as worthy information just the same.  I advised them that they were a fast four hours’ walk, or a third of the sun’s daytime arc, from Pinea.  We talked some about the village and the people while I served a meal that was deliberately meager.  (I hoped to keep our reputation for hospitality at a minimum.)  As we ate, they finished the story of their donkey.  As they progressed northward where grazing was land was more and more scarce, they were able to purchase sacks of grain.  But they rationed the grain, which fasting the donkey seemed to tolerate.  They went so far as to feed her every third or fourth day and then would let her eat all she wanted.  And she seemed not to want more than a day’s ration at that.  Water was plentiful due to the springtime runoff.  Her response between feedings was simply to follow them, and during the first two days after they left Drizha, their progress was discouraging.  The donkey began panting and her breath, never pleasant anyway, became fetid.  Then came bursts of diarrhea.  With this development, the brothers had unburdened her, and on her final morning, still one day before arriving at our house, they watched her wander, disoriented, from the trail and stagger into the woods just past Polotnoy’s house.  Euthymios followed for some distance until the ailing beast flopped to the ground and swung her head around to glare at him with pitiful, pleading eyes.  Convulsions soon followed, and thus he left her there.

As I was helping Laïsha prepare for the night behind her curtain, she prompted me to tell the brothers of my master’s current sojourn in the south.  This I dreaded to do, for what if they knew him, and what if they knew in what city he would be if he were alive and could truly have been there, and what if they knew of his son as well?  The questions they could ask me would be insufferable.  Still, after her urging, I relented.

Mercifully, they knew him not, but regretted that they had not known to seek him before leaving on their trek, for Sadruk might have wanted to travel with them or to send messages home.

We discussed the idea of praying for Laïsha’s healing, and, with Laïsha’s agreement, set it to take place early the next morning.  As the rest of us prepared to retire for the night, Euthymios had the idea that we should move Laïsha’s bed before the stove, there to receive the maximum warmth on this extremely cold night.  With uncommon commotion we accomplished this move, keeping it raised as I had fixed it before, and placed it with the foot of the bed toward the very opening to the coals.

I expected the brothers to lay out their bedding on the top slab of the stove.  Instead, to make things really cozy, Euthymios and Simonos volunteered to sleep in the very tight space beneath the bed with their feet thrust against the blaze.  They explained that they must sleep on the hard, cold floor because they were just then undertaking a personal sacrifice in reverence for their Master’s suffering.  I shrugged at this insufficient explanation.  When the beds were set and while the brothers were kneeling in mumbled prayer in a far corner, using their hands to stir the air before them in unison in precise gestures, Laïsha and I exchanged glances.  She rolled her eyes and patted the bed cover beside her.

I crawled in among the furs.  “I’m sorry, but I guess we must do this,” I whispered.

“I feel very ill, but it will be comforting to have your warmth,” she replied.

“They will have to stay here for some time.  Simonos cannot walk to Pinea now.”

“I have no trouble with the idea.  I have heard of their ability to heal, those of the Christ, and I have faith in their powers.”

I felt a wave of resentment and wanted to ask Laïsha where her faith in my own healing powers had fled.  I lay silent.  Then I thought back to my earlier musings about determination.  This offer from Euthymios had strengthened her will to be healed, so it could not be all bad.  Let it be as they proposed, then.  Maybe I would learn something from observing their method that I could apply in my own practice of medicine.

The brothers said a blessing in Greek over our bed before they crawled beneath us, and all became profoundly silent.  For some time I pondered this silence.  It was deeply restful, but at the same time deeply disturbing.  No trees creaked outside.  No branches clattered.  No owl hooted.  The fire, even though it glowed, didn’t sputter.  The nighttime rustle of mice and skitter of insects were absent.  I couldn’t even hear anyone breathing.

I said inside myself: I should make a sound and see whether I can hear it.  But something — fear that I had lost my hearing? — made me resist that.  Then I wondered whether Laïsha were even still in bed with me, for I took care not to press against her or otherwise touch her while I lay with her, (unless consoling her as I had done during Raznoy’s visit), both as a precaution against causing her pain and out of respect for the fact that she might one day become another man’s wife and might wish to retain her honor.  Nonetheless, if she were missing from the bed, how did she escape?  I had not yet slept, nor moved at all, nor detected any movement beside me.

My right hand crept outward from my side, beneath the coverings, and was suddenly caught in the clutch of her left!  I raised my head and turned to look her way.  There beside her knelt Euthymios, head bent in prayer, a hand placed on Laïsha’s forehead.  Still I heard not a sound, and if his voice were employed in the praying, then I had certainly gone deaf.

I lay my head back and relaxed.  Oddly, once I discovered this situation, I felt no more apprehensions about the brothers nor anger at their professed powers to heal.  Laïsha held my hand for a long time, and I know not when I fell asleep, but when I awoke to the bright light of advanced morning there were sounds in profusion.

Birds chirped excitedly outside the open door.  Simonos sat on an up-ended log with his back to the stove and was making a hoarse wheeze which I interpreted immediately as a laugh.  Beside me Laïsha was sitting, turned toward the door, and was also laughing delightedly.

Without rising, I turned to see.  Euthymios crouched in the open doorway, holding out a long plank.  On the end of the plank sat two or three small birds, pecking at some substance placed there, and other birds fluttered about it.  Slowly, Euthymios was backing into the house, bringing the birds in with him.

Then, on a cue from one of their own, the door yard roared with the rush of wing beats as all the birds swirled in a flock out over my sinister brush pile and disappeared into the forest.

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