These stories are dedicated to Pierre Lioni Ullman, with gratitude for his courage.
He woke suddenly. He couldn’t move and was afraid to open his eyes. His mind went over hundreds of details. Things he had not paid any special attention to the day before became monstrous creatures. In November his parents had watched a parade in New York City that was broadcast on British television. There were giant balloons in the shapes of cartoon characters, floating above the crowds in random patterns. This was what the images in the middle of the night looked like. They always looked like this, and even when he was able to relax enough to move, maybe even summon the bravery to get out of bed and out of his bedroom to the bathroom, it often wasn’t until the middle of the next day that he would recognize the images as “recurrent night terrors” that his psychologist said were common to those who had experienced trauma.
He did get up, used the bathroom, went down to the kitchen to eat a spoonful of marmalade, and went back to bed.
He had fallen asleep during the Psalms and stayed asleep during the first reading.
“Sergei,” Katya whispered, taking his hand, “the Magnificat.”
They stood together and crossed themselves as the choir began, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior…”
It had just begun snowing as they left the chapel. Sergei put his arm around Katya and kissed her temple.
“Terrors last night?”
“How did you know?”
“Sweetheart, you slept through the first third of the service.”
“Tsk, no need. It’s happened before. The world doesn’t end because of that, does it? Were they the usual?”
It took Sergei a block of walking to form an answer.
“Yes and no. Yes, but there was something different, too.”
“No, not better. I dreamt that I had climbed a tree and there were wolves around the tree, jumping up towards me.”
“What did you think while you were up in that tree?”
“I thought, ‘what will I do when my parents die.’”
“Sergei, it’s going to happen. They will die. How old are they now?”
“Not that old by today’s standards, but anything could happen. Have you talked to them about the details?”
“They talked with me about their will, what I will inherit, their last wishes regarding medical care.”
“So everything is taken care of.”
That night, Segei dreamt of the wolves again. It was, for the most part, the same dream as the night before, and he felt just as helpless. Katya had said, “Everything is taken care of.” But it wasn’t.
The day after night terrors was always hard. His nerves had spent the night in overdrive, and they weren’t wired for that much electricity. Frayed at the edges, he’d make his way through the day. He worked ¾ time as an art handler for one of the college museums. The work was quiet and physical, required carefulness but not a high level of literacy. He was diligent and useful to the museum; the art was soothing to him. He loved the feel of the frames and wood, or, in the case of sculptures, stone and bronze, in his hands. The shapes and colors absorbed the static of his overwrought nervous system. It is how he felt when he helped his mother in their tiny garden, tending vines and flowers and the kitchen garden with its lettuce and herbs. The plants and ground absorbed fear he could not contain, bringing him relief. His care enriched their life.
But it was winter, so the garden was not an option. Well, there was always Katya and their walks and attending evensong. The prayer book also took no more than it gave and was a shock absorber of sorts.
And Katya: that is what his psychologist often said to him, but Sergei disagreed. A person shouldn’t be a shock absorber. The overt details of their lives made Katya and Sergei an obvious pair to the casual observer: they had both been orphans in Russia, adopted by foreigners, raised in a foreign language, and both found themselves in Oxford, England. They both felt comfortable in the Church and with the rhythms of the Church. But they knew that the glue between them was a certain type of wound that they both bore, wounds inflicted by those around them, those who chose to use them. Neither of them spent energy privately or in conversation judging those who hurt them. There was enough pain without adding more.
Having found themselves treated as vessels and aware of the damage this caused, Sergei and Katya were studiously careful with each other. Each act of tenderness strengthened their bond. Both of them were poignantly aware that the other bore pain that no human had any capacity to heal.
The dreams continued, sometimes twice a night. His worked helped; the steady liturgies of the Church helped. He longed for spring-time gardening. He knew if he could skim a layer of anxiety off during the day, the nights would be somewhat easier, but it was the dead of winter.
One morning, he looked at the icon of Christ that he kept in his room.
“Here it is,” he said, “I have these wounds; I have this reality in my future: my parents will not always be here to shelter me. I only have so many tools at my disposal. I am mired in my fear and exhaustion and pain. There it is. I am your creature, and I need your help.”
He prayed this prayer each morning and each night. He didn’t tell his psychologist about it; he didn’t tell Katya. Each night the dreams came. There was variation, but the theme was the same. Each day began with the static of the night before, the exhaustion, the furious activity of his brain, the clench in his heart and throughout his body.
After the second week of praying this prayer, one thing changed: he began to actively look for signs that would point him in the direction he was supposed to go. He listened more attentively to the readings at Evensong and sang the words of the hymns more attentively, too. He realized that his difficulty in reading was a benefit in this situation. If it was too easy, he might not have to process each word so intently.
Everywhere he walked, he looked around for signs.
In his conversations with Katya and his parents, he listened for signs.
The dreams were the same, but even in his dreams, he began looking more carefully at the details.
It was brutal winter: ice storms, snow storms, lengthy cold. The buildings were built for milder winters. He and his parents often wore hats in the house and gloves with the fingers cut off. They drank more tea than usual and sat with blankets over their laps in the evening. Katya, who favored knee length skirts, began wearing long skirts and fur-lined boots. The two ice storms shut down the electricity for three days, causing pipes to burst and most digital communications to cease. The organs in the chapels had electric blowers, so Evensong, which continued, was sung a capella in chapels lit by candles. It was one of those winters where people stop complaining about the weather because it wastes energy and also cease thinking about the arrival of spring.
Time crawled for Sergei, too, but it gave him a wider berth for his new focus. The new focus came in the second week of praying the prayer which coincided with the beginning of Lent. He had to learn to live on his own. If he waited until his parents died, the waiting and wondering would only wear him down.
This was when he began to do a lot of math. He worked, had a salary but essentially no expenses. He lived with his parents who never questioned supporting him in this way, and he had health coverage from the government. His social life consisted of going to church with his parents and being with Katya – walking, going to Evensong, eating their bag lunches together during the week. He had saved almost all of the money he had made in the past few years. He also knew he had an “expectancy” from his parents: his father had inherited a modest income as did his mother, and they had always lived well below their means. He considered his savings and also approaching them about an advance, so to speak, on any inheritance.
After Evensong one Sunday, Katya asked him what he was doing for Lent.
“Tell me what you’re doing first.”
“I still haven’t decided. That’s why I’m asking you. Maybe you’ll give me an idea.”
“I’m making plans to live on my own.”
Katya slipped her hand into his, “What plans have you made?”
“Well, first I decided to do it. No, first I prayed about the terrors, and then it came to me that I needed to live on my own. This past week I’ve been doing math and looking at some places.”
“Have you told your parents?”
“I was planning to do that tonight. After I talk with them, I’ll have a better idea of what I can afford.”
“Do you have a schedule?”
“I think the sooner the better. These terrors are wearing me down, and if I’m too worn down, I might not have the courage I need.”
“Do you think this will cure the terrors?”
“I don’t know. But it will take one concern off my mind.”
“I won’t need to wonder when I’ll be forced to live on my own. I will know when, and I will be able to start learning whatever I need to learn.”
“Well, now I know what I’m doing for Lent.”
“I’ll be praying for you while you take this step, and I will be praying that I know how to support you.”
Sergei’s adoptive parents were supportive of his plans and would be able to help him financially.
He stressed that he appreciated all they had done for him and all they were offering to do, “but please don’t help me too much. I need to build my courage.”
His parents’ arrival at the orphanage more than ten years ago saved his life, and their support now was helping him to build a life as an independent adult.
The next day, after work and before Evensong, he met with a real estate agent who he had been in contact with. They viewed several places that were near the city’s center – close to the college he worked and within walking distance to Katya’s home. He wouldn’t need to buy a car, and he was very familiar with this part of town. It would be one less thing to learn.
He chose an upper apartment that had a view of the river on one side and the spires of Christ Church on the other. It was available April 15, and he made plans to move in on that day.
After Evensong, he and Katya walked past his new place.
“I will move in on April 15.”
“Good Friday, you know.”
“Yes, well, we won’t be in church all day, will we?”
“Do you have things to set up a household?”
“I have my bedroom furniture. My mother has things that I was going to inherit – furniture and linens and also dishes – which she will give me now. I suppose I’ll see what else I need once I move in.”
“Is there anything I can help with?”
“I don’t want to ask too much.”
Katya knew what he meant and didn’t press the point. She took his arm and held it close to her while they walked in the chilly evening air.
Katya called Sergei’s mother the week before he was to move in, asking if there was anything the two of them needed.
“Well, Katya, you know Sergei loves to help me in the garden, and he won’t have a garden. Do you have any ideas?”
“I have a shelf of herbs in my kitchen that Sergei has often admired. Why don’t I make a collection for him and also collect a few other potted plants?”
“Yes, good idea, but not an Easter Lily. We have one in his name for Easter Sunday at the church and will bring it to him after the service.”
“Okay, anything else?”
“He will miss our cat, but I don’t want him to have to take on too much at once.”
“The college museum is closed on Easter Monday. Maybe I will suggest Sergei and I go to the animal shelter that day.”
“Good idea. Thank you for calling, Katya. You’ll be there on moving day?”
“Yes, and Sergei invited me to join your family for Easter morning’s service.”
Sergei had been planning in other ways, too. He began to watch everything. He began to notice ways his mother worked in the kitchen, the way she planned a grocery list or prepared for a visit to the bank. When a utility bill was lying open on her desk, he would take a moment to study it. He began to pay attention to the hours at the post office and pharmacy. When he helped his mother with errands, he made mental notes of where certain items were located in a store, what the price was.
He began to set his alarm for early in the morning, and he would go to the kitchen to make his own tea and breakfast. He tried to imagine what it would be like to do this without the promise of company, especially the kind, sturdy company of his adoptive parents. He would make notes of what his daily and weekly schedule would be like: how to fit shopping and cleaning and laundry around work and times with Katya.
Moving day came. His parents and Katya helped him move in the early morning. At noon, he and Katya attended the Good Friday service at the parish church she belonged to. After the service, she offered to walk him back to his new place.
“No, let me walk you to yours. I want to walk there by myself.”
It was late afternoon. He began unpacking some boxes, moving furniture into place, hanging a few pictures. By 6 p.m. he was hungry. He had bought a few groceries after he dropped off Katya. He cracked three eggs in a bowl and whisked them with a fork, heated a pan with butter, and cooked the eggs. He added some dried scallions and salt and pepper. He toasted a muffin and put the eggs on top and then sliced an apple and made tea. It looked like a dinner. His table was set up to face a window that looked out onto the river and had set the pots of herbs Katya brought on the window’s ledge. The meal tasted good.
He was tired, but it was too early to go to bed. He got out some drawing paper and a pencil. Though he worked at the college’s art museum as an art handler, he still did some of his own art in his spare time. What he liked best were pencil drawings on good paper. Katya knew how to use the computer to order handmade paper for him. It was grainy and thick. He liked the feel and sound of the pencil as it crossed the texture of the paper.
The readings from Good Friday were on his mind. He designed a cross using the words Christ and Us written in English and in Russian.
When it seemed like a reasonable hour to go to bed, he put on his pajamas, said his prayers, and turned out the light.
He woke suddenly. He couldn’t move and was afraid to open his eyes. His mind went over hundreds of details. Things he had not paid any special attention to the day before became monstrous creatures. He got up, used the bathroom, and went to the kitchen to eat a spoonful of marmalade.
The picture he had begun was sitting on the table. He sat down and looked at the cross and the words. He thought of the words from a hymn they had sung at the Good Friday Service, “by tasting fruit of the Forbidden Tree…” The woman at the orphanage who paid him “visits” used to refer to certain parts of her anatomy as fruit. “Apples?” she’d say, “Do you think they look like apples? Maybe small melons? As I age, maybe they’ll droop like pears. What do you think, Sergei?”
Katya and Sergei planned to attend the Holy Saturday service in the morning at his parents’ church and stay to help decorate the church for Easter. They worked together, separate from the rest of the group, cleaning the votive candle holder. He had come a long way in learning how to work with the agoraphobia that plagued him, but he knew his limits. They took a break and sat in a pew in the very back of the church.
“Katya, what was that hymn that had trees in it yesterday?”
“Well, I know there was something about a tree that had ‘forbidden fruit’…”
“We only sang three hymns. Let’s look them up.” She picked up the hymnal.
The first hymn she found was the one.
“Oh, I had it wrong. It is ‘fruit of the forbidden tree’.”
“But it says more, too. ‘Then another tree was chosen…’ Actually, as I scan it and the second part of the hymn on the right side mentions trees, to. You’re right, Sergei. Of all the years I’ve been in the Church, I’ve never heard anyone point this out.”
“Katya, help me read the other lines about trees.”
“One of them says, ‘one and only noble tree’. In the next verse, it says, ‘Bend thy boughs, O Tree of Glory’.”
That night, the pattern of waking was repeated. Sergei had been down this road before and had learned to ride the wave until the momentum eased. His psychologist said it had something about brain chemicals. He got up, used the bathroom, and made some tea. He got out the cross drawing that he had begun the day before. He looked at the cross and began adding branches and foliage, using letters from the words Christ and Us in both English and Russian. In the quiet of the wee hours, the pencil made a pleasing sound. He moved the pencil slowly, not adding that much, really. Then he sat back in the chair with the tea steaming up on his face, and looked at the additions.
On the Monday after Easter, Sergei and Katya went to the animal shelter to look for a cat. It had been a hard winter, and many stray cats had died in the cold. As a result, there were not many to choose from. A young black and white short hair male had been brought in that day.
“He hasn’t had any veterinary care yet,” the attendant told them, “but if you can wait until Friday, he’ll be here for you.”
Segei looked at the young cat who seemed unusually quiet given his age.
“Yes, I can wait.”
The night terrors continued, some nights worse than others. Sergei used the time to continue working on his cross/tree drawing, tending the plants from Katya, and constructing cat toys for his new roommate out of scraps of yarn and fabric that his mother had given him.
His mother called Katya.
“How do you think he’s doing?”
“I think okay. He has been falling asleep during Evensong, so I know he isn’t sleeping well. I don’t ask much. You know it seems to stir things up.”
“His psychologist had told us the same thing. How did you know that?”
“Oh, I haven’t been through the things Sergei has, but I’ve had my own trials. Say, we found a cat. Did he tell you?”
“Yes. Friday’s the day?”
Instead of going to Evensong on the Friday after Easter, Katya and Sergei walked to the shelter. They borrowed a cat carrier from the museum director.
“You have some food at home and a dish for water?”
“Yes, and liter. Do you think he’ll like my place?”
“Do you like it? You’ve never said.”
“I lived with my parents so long that I still feel like I’m in a hotel or something.”
“Is that a yes or no?”
“It is like a new pair of shoes, Katya. Everything is fine, but it still isn’t natural yet.”
“How are the plants?”
“They get a lot of attention! It is nice to have them there. Yesterday I snipped some of the parsley for my eggs.”
They walked for a block in silence.
“We’ve only been talking about me lately. What have you been thinking about?”
“Lately I’ve been thinking about your big move.”
“Why? Are you worried?”
“No, I’m happy, but I know how big it is, so I’m watching.”
Sergei woke up in the middle of the night, his body rigid with tension. He had learned years ago to keep a night light on, so that, once he was brave enough to open his eyes, he would be reassured that he was simply at home in his bed. After about five minutes of being awake, frozen, and with his eyes closed, he opened them. Sitting next to him, looking right at his newly opened eyes, was his new companion. The cat reached out his paw and tapped on Sergei’s arm.
“You think I should get up, do you?” Sergei got up to use the bathroom and make some tea. The cat followed him. While he was pouring the hot water, the cat jumped up on the table and batted one of the toys Sergei had fashioned for him. This one was a little red ball of yarn. Sergei put it back on the table, and the cat batted it off again. Sergei laughed and sat down to work on his drawing. The cat climbed down on his lap and leaned his head on the table while Sergei drew.
“Sergei,” Katya whispered, “the Magnificat.”
Sergei had slept through the Psalms and the first reading at Evensong on Saturday. Katya took his hand to help him stand, and they both crossed themselves as the choir began. After the second reading the Nunc Dimitis, an anthem was announced, “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree”, along with the instruction that a copy of the text had been slipped inside the hymnal covers, so people could follow along.
The Presider gave a short homily based on the text of the anthem, explaining that it was written in the late 18th century in America in a place where apple trees were common. Sergei lost interest in the homily because the third verse struck him:
I’m weary with my former toil,
Here I will sit and rest awhile:
Under the shadow I will be
Of Jesus Christ the apple tree.
On the way home, Katya asked him, finally, about how he was doing.
“I like my place. Already I have a routine.”
“You aren’t sleeping.”
“That’s nothing new.”
“I thought this was going to help.”
“I did it to help a fear I had, and it helped.”
“I didn’t know how I would live if my parents died. Now I am living on my own. If they die, I will miss them, but I will still have a home.”
“Why do you still have the terrors then?”
“The same reason I have always had them. Many things recall those times when I was trapped in a situation that hurt me. Sometimes I’m not even aware that it is happening until the terrors start.”
Katya didn’t say anything.
“Are you disappointed in me Katya?”
The dream was the same as it had been for months now. He was up in a tree, and there were wolves circling it. Before he could open his eyes, he felt a paw tapping on his forehead.
“Yes, little fur ball? I haven’t given you a name yet. No name has come to me. Should be get up?”
He got up and the cat followed him into the kitchen. While Sergei was making tea, the cat batted the little red yarn balls off the table on to the floor and then jumped off the table and batted them to Sergei.
“You like to play catch?”
Sergei kicked the ball back, “I’m too tired to do much more of this. I’m going to draw now.”
He had begun to put his cross drawing out before bed each night, like having an understanding companion waiting for him. He watched the little cat bat around the red balls and stop to look up at him.
Sergei smiled, “You’ve just given me an idea.” He got up from the table and found a red pencil in the drawer. Then he sat down and began drawing apples in the word foliage of the cross and also a few apples on the ground. Then he switched pencils and drew a cat at the bottom of the picture and quickly sketched a few wolves sitting nearby.
Sunday morning, Katya and Sergei went to church like they always did, and the priest talked about Doubting Thomas.
“Katya, will you come in for a few minutes? I’ve been working on a drawing I’d like to show you.”
Sergei showed Katya the drawing: the cross that had branches and leaves, using the words Christ and Us in Russian and English. Little red apples dotted the tree/cross and were scattered below. The wolves sat around the tree/cross and the cat looked like it was playing with the apples. Sergei’s cat came in, jumped on the table, and began rubbing his cheeks on Katya’s arm.
“Have you named your kitty?”
“Yes, I did just now.”
“His name is Thomas.”
“As in the Thomas from today’s Gospel?”
Katya was looking at the picture, “I see things that we have been talking about in the last week -- the cross and the tree, the apples, the wolves. Is this Thomas below?”
Sergei nodded again.
“But even if I didn’t know that we had talked about all of this, I would get a sense, a feeling. What will you do with it?”
“I want to build a frame and put it here in my eating room. This is where I sit when I wake up in the middle of the night. It has kept me company, along with Thomas, when I have the dreams.”
“Why the name Thomas?”
“Thomas knew there are always wolves around the tree,” he said, tracing his index finger over the drawing, “It is a beautiful tree, isn’t it, Katya?”