These stories are dedicated to Pierre Lioni Ullman, with gratitude for his courage.
"My soul doth magnify the Lord..."
It shouldn’t have happened. This is what she thought as she walked East on Main Street. The bells at Queen’s were ringing for Evensong. It shouldn’t have happened. She checked the directions. She had to get to Iffley. She was a Russian tutor. She usually didn’t tutor people in their homes or tutor in English, but this student was different. He was Russian, adopted when he was fifteen and now was twenty-one, still not fluent, somewhat agoraphobic. He wanted to study art but couldn’t pass the English proficiency tests. His adoptive parents thought someone who was fluent in Russian might make him feel more at ease.
The bells ringing made her yearn to attend Evensong instead of teach. The Church of England, like the country of England, was her adopted home. She remembered how it first came up. She met her future husband in graduate school in the States. One Sunday morning in bed, he asked her if she ever went to church.
“I was raised in the Unitarian Church.”
“That’s not a religion.”
“No, it isn’t, but it was our church.”
She had been adopted at age ten from an orphanage in Siberia by a couple who, in their fifties, after achieving success as Russian scholars and securing tenured positions at a Midwestern university, decided they wanted to raise a child.
“If we married, would you become a member of the Church of England?”
“Are you proposing?”
“I need to know you will be a member of the Church of England before I propose. The Church is very important to my parents.”
“I would. But, if that is important, why are you proposing to an American?”
“People think I came to America to study, but I really came to look for a wife.”
“Because American women are healthy and beautiful.”
“But I’m not really an American.”
“You are healthy and beautiful.”
She became an Anglican, and they went to England to be married. Soon after, he procured a job at a college in Oxford. She tutored students in Russian, did some translations, and socialized as the wife of a professor.
Three years into their marriage, she still had not conceived and, at his urging, began fertility treatments. The treatments had terrible side affects and did not work their magic. At age 29, she was still barren and ravaged by the treatments. She discontinued the fertility treatments, but the intestinal problems persisted. A battery of tests revealed no intestinal disorders but, instead, a tumor on her ovaries. There was surgery and a cancer diagnosis, chemotherapy, the loss of hair and weight and dignity and the ability to ever bear children. During that time, her mother, a life-long diabetic, suffered from unexpected kidney failure and died. Three weeks later, her father, grief stricken, died of a heart attack. The chemotherapy made her too ill to make the trans-Atlantic flight for either funeral. Old family friends sent photos via the computer of the funerals. The day her chemotherapy treatment ended, her husband announced that he was filing for divorce. He needed to produce an heir for his family. By the time her hair was long enough to comb, he had applied for and was accepted for a visiting professor position at an Ivy League school in America. Six months after that, she read in the newspaper of his engagement to a young woman whose mother was a Broadway actress and whose father was an Anglican clergyman.
She stayed in Oxford. She had students and a place to live, and the Church of England had become her home. She began to carve out a life of tutoring and translating, became a member of a parish church for Sunday worship, and visited various colleges for Evensong during the week.
She had been tutoring at Queens and attending Evensong there on Wednesdays. The Greek professor often sat with her. He was almost always alone as his wife was an invalid – a riding accident after their fifth child was born. His children were now grown and his wife bed-ridden.
He asked if he could walk her home one evening. She said yes, and when he invited himself up to her apartment, she also said yes. And when he nearly attacked her with a passion she did not expect, she did not resist. Her sexuality had taken quite a beating, and she was glad to express it again.
That is, until she realized she wasn’t expressing it at all, that the entire affair was based on his pent up sexuality that seemed, after awhile, to be obsessive. When she tried to talk about this, he laughed at her and would pull at the buttons on her blouse. She ended the affair and stopped attending Evensong at Queens. She wished the affair had never happened; the cure it promised ended up damaging her worse than she had been damaged before.
She crossed the bridge into East Oxford and headed up Iffley Road. She turned right near the Roman Catholic Church run by Franciscans and checked the address once more. When she reached the address she had written down, she rang the doorbell, and a woman answered the door.
“Yes, here I am.” She still had a difficult time remembering her new last name. She had chosen a completely new name when her marriage ended. She didn’t want to use her husband’s name, and the family name of her adopted father, Kiltzer, seemed too ethnic for a citizen of England. Newman appeared in the phone book enough times for her to believe it was common.
“I’ll show you to Sergei’s room.”
It was a well kept home, and both parents seemed kind and quietly generous.
“Sergei, Miss Newman is here.”
In the partially lit bedroom sat a young man with dark, closely cut hair. He stood as she entered.
“Please call me Katya,” she said, extending her hand.
“Sergei. Pleased to meet you.” He pulled a chair from next to the desk and motioned for her to sit down.
“Where should we begin?” she asked in Russian.
“I was born in St. Petersburg. Where is your family from?”
“I was, like you, adopted, but from Siberia.”
“Twenty four years ago. I am thirty four now.” They sat in silence for a moment.
“I need to learn English better. I would like to study art in a school, and for this I need to learn English better. But it is hard for me to get out.”
“How is your reading?”
“Poor. Poor in Russian, poor in English.”
“Let’s begin with conversations then – some of each language. But it is small in here. We are near the river, and there is a nice path that I know of. Next time, can we walk there?”
“If it is okay with my parents.”
“I will ask. I am to come on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Let’s plan, for now, to walk each day.”
This began a month of thrice weekly walks along the Thames, the same path each time, with conversations about England and the food and the customs – things that are best observed as a foreigner. She told him about how she came to England and the events of her marriage and illness. They covered a lot of vocabulary this way. One day he asked her why she stayed.
“The Church of England.”
“You are not Orthodox?”
“I was raised in the States by parents who were Unitarian – not really a religion, more an investigation. I married into the Church of England. Are you Orthodox? I have seen two icons in your room.”
“Do you need to be Orthodox to have icons?”
“Well, no. I have an traveling icon of Mary and Jesus that I keep by my bed.”
“Do you travel a lot?”
“Not at all, but it is the icon my parents gave me when I emigrated.”
“I attend church on Sunday with my parents. I suppose that means I’m Anglican. I haven’t really thought about it.”
“Have you been confirmed?”
“No, that would mean attending classes.”
“If you could receive the instruction at home, would you be confirmed?”
“What do you think?”
“I think it might be nice for you to have an anchor besides your parents.”
“I’ve only been to their church on Sundays. What if I attend another and find out I don’t like it.”
“Come to Evensong with me some time.” She knew this was bold – inviting him to another church outside of his familiar sphere.
“How would I get there?”
“I would meet you at your house and walk you there and back.”
They walked in silence for a few steps.
His mother was happy when Katya told her this plan. The next Tuesday she arrived at 4:30, and together they walked to New College for Evensong and then back to his home.
“How can I study to be confirmed?” he asked her as they neared his door.
“Let me work on that.”
She talked with his parents and then the priest of their parish church, obtaining a curriculum. They would attend Evensong every Tuesday and Thursday, and on Saturdays they would study confirmation materials at his house. He would be confirmed at the Easter Vigil at his parish church, and she would be a sponsor.
In addition to her tutoring work, she had been working with the curators of one of the college’s art museums on a show of icons. She helped write and translate the catalogue which would be used at the Oxford exhibition and then when it moved to Moscow. The opening was on a Thursday, during Evensong time, and she was supposed to give the introductory remarks.
She told Sergei of this and invited him, and, surprisingly and without hesitation, he agreed. His parents dropped him off as near to the door as was possible. When she saw him enter the gallery, she broke from the conversation that she was a part of to greet him.
“Sergei,” she said, stretching out her free hand to greet him. As usual, she wore a black skirt that fell just below her knee, but instead of the usual tailored blouse or sweater set and scarf, she wore a black suit. Her hair, usually in a French twist, was down – shoulder length, black and wavy, and held back with two silver combs that matched the orthodox cross around her neck. She had replaced her boots (“I must wear heels,” she said once, “because I am so short, even in England!”) with black pumps.
“You look very pretty, Katya.”
“You are looking handsome in your suit and tie, Sergei.”
He noticed the glass in her hand, and, when he did, his eyes flew open as if startled.
“Is there something the matter?”
“Is that wine?”
“No, it’s punch. I don’t drink. But there is wine. Would you like some?” she asked, motioning to the table in the corner.
“No!” he said too loudly. “No, but maybe some punch.”
They walked to the table, and she explained that she had a place in front saved for him.
“I am going to end my talk with questions, and then we can go around to look at the icons. The cards are in both Russian and English, so it will be good for our studies.”
As she said, they toured the exhibit after her talk. She hooked his arm in his.
“This way people will be less likely to interrupt us.”
“You seemed very comfortable talking in front of all these people.”
“I’ve spent most of my life in this sort of environment. When are your parents coming?”
”I’m supposed to call them about 8:00.”
“It is ten to 8:00. Let’s go out for a bit of fresh air.”
They called his parents and waited outside. When his parents arrived, he kissed her cheek and, without saying goodbye, got into the car.
This became their pattern as they moved into Lent. Every Tuesday and Thursday, she would meet him at his house to walk to Evensong. When they turned onto Iffley Road, he offered his arm, which she took. They talked in Russian and in English about the weather and the news and childhood foods, about religion and the ways of the English. At Evensong, they would always share a prayer book, so she could trace her fingers along the words to help him to read. She did the same as they stood together singing English hymns with a Russian accent. When they walked home, he would offer his arm again and, right before turning right off of Iffley Road, he would kiss her cheek.
One Thursday he asked why they had never been to Evensong at Queens. She waited to answer and then told him the story of the affair.
“It was the last nail in the coffin, as the saying goes.”
“The coffin of my sexuality.” They walked in silence for a block.
“Maybe I have been too forward, Katya, maybe I’ve been hurting you.”
“Sweet, beautiful Sergei – you are not hurting me. Your affection is quite satisfying to me in that way. It is enough.” After another block of silence, she spoke again, “But I have been wondering if, now that we are friends, if I should stop accepting money from your parents.”
“No!” he said loudly, like the time he refused the wine, “Then they will make me meet another teacher.”
“Oh, yes, I see. We’ll keep things as they are.”
The night of the Easter Vigil had arrived. She met Sergei and his parents at their house, and they all drove together to the parish where his parents were members. He sat between Katja and his mother. During the exchange of the peace, she hugged him and kissed his cheek.
“Welcome, my friend, to the Church of England.” There were smiles all around.
During Lent she had also been working on another art exhibition catalogue, and the opening was to take place the Thursday after Easter. There was a collection of 19th century art recently discovered in Russia, and the college had planned another joint exhibit with a gallery in Moscow. As she did for the icon exhibit, she helped write and translate the catalogue and was asked to give the introductory remarks at the opening. Sergei was dropped off by his parents and joined her after the talk for a tour around the gallery. There were more people in attendance, and much more wine flowing. “It isn’t religion,” she said in response to his question. In front of them at one point were two women – known in the community for their eccentric ways and their marriages to titled men. They had obviously been drinking quite a bit and were talking loudly, addressing each other with lavish affection. The approach of Sergei and Katya distracted them from each other.
“Darling, there is the saintly Katya and her boy-toy student.”
“He is a cutie, isn’t he, and a virgin – can’t you tell?”
Before Katya could steer them away, the one woman had her arm around Sergei and was pushing him toward the painting of a nubile nude.
“I don’t look like that, sweetie, but I could pleasure you just the same,” and she gave him a squeeze on the bottom.
At this Sergei yelped, pushing the woman aside, and running from the room. He knocked aside an older woman before tripping over a chair and landing on the corner of a table, cutting his head. Bleeding, he quickly gathered himself and ran from the gallery.
Katya followed and found him outside, wretching. Two men from security followed. She motioned them to wait and reached out for Sergei’s arm.
“Don’t touch me, you bitch!” he screamed in Russian and then fainted.
Katya went inside to call his parents who came immediately and drove him away. Katya gathered her belongings and went home.
The next morning, his mother called Katya. He had been admitted to the psychiatric unit of the hospital and was being treated for anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“May I call you tomorrow to inquire about his well-being?”
”Of course,” his mother replied.
On Saturday she called.
“He would like to see you. Could you come after church tomorrow?”
She found him in his pajamas, lying on his bed. She sat on the only chair in the room.
“How are you?”
“They have me pretty well drugged. I don’t know how I am. I’m really sorry about the other night.”
“Can you tell me what happened?”
“It isn’t pretty.”
“Will you tell me?”
“When I was fourteen, there was a woman who worked at the orphanage. She was famous for her drinking. Anyway, she took an interest in my art, which I was happy to show her. But then she noticed that my voice had changed, and then her interest changed. She did things to me. She would come every day and close the door. Just remembering the smell of her alcohol breath and the smell of her womanhood floods my brain with pain, making it hard for me to recall the details. I’ve never told anyone all the details. I don’t want anyone else’s brain to be infected with such horrible pictures. I almost took my life for the shame of it. But then, miraculously, my parents came. Being away from Russia and Russian helped. My parents don’t drink. That has helped, too. But I couldn’t go out, even in England. There were women and the smell of women and alcohol and advertisements with sex. Movies and television shows have sex. People walk in ways that suggest things that trigger terrible feelings in me. You were like an angel – beautiful and could speak Russian, but you can also speak English, and you go to church. Even with you I am terrified. I wake up in the night with my heart pounding and my body frozen – that you will turn out to be a monster, too, or that you will meet a real man – not a young man who will probably never be able to live a real married life with a woman. I am terrified by the shame of my past and how it has warped me. I am terrified that wanting you for myself will only lead to disappointment or that maybe my past will warp you as well…”
“Sergei, I too am damaged. Sometimes, when we are damaged, we have to allow that part of ourselves to live as it can.”
“You are being kind.”
“I’m too scared right now to think straight.”
“How can I help?”
”I don’t want to miss Evensong, but I can’t be out in the world yet.”
“I will bring my prayer book.”
“I want to sing, too.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
She knew a choral scholar at one of the colleges from some coaching she did on the pronunciation of the text for Rachmoninov’s Vespers. She called him and told him of what she needed. He provided her with chants for the Magnificat and Nunc Dimitis and the Phos Hilaron, a
Pitch pipe, and a hymnal.
Beginning the Tuesday in the second week of Easter, they met at their usual times, except they were in the hospital. They sat at his desk, singing the canticles, reading the Psalms in unison. She made him read the scripture by himself. They didn’t talk much, and they exchanged no affection.
On the Saturday in the fourth week of Easter, they were reading the Psalm appointed for the evening, Psalm 139. “If I say, surely the darkness will cover me, and the light around me turn to night. Darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day. Darkness and light to you are both alike.” He read the first lesson, and then they began to sing the Magnificat, “My soul doth magnify the Lord…”
“Stop,” he said, turning to the Psalm they had just read. “Katya, I think I see how these go together. I don’t know how to get from one to the other, though. It is like a difficult math problem that hurts my head. I know it works, but I can’t figure out how.”
“I don’t think we can figure it out, Sergei. I think we have to live it out.”
He put his arms around her and sobbed.
The next day he called her.
“Can we go to Evensong at New College on Tuesday? My parents are willing to drop me off at the gate.”
She waited at the gate for his arrival. When they walked through the entrance into the college, he offered her his arm and she took it without comment. After a few steps he stopped.
“Katya, do you think that the way we are together, do you think that this could be the way we express our – the way we are…“
He kissed her forehead.
“The bell is ringing.” And they walked, arms hooked, towards the chapel door.