Rowan Leaves and Hole by Andy Goldsworthy (born 1956) (source)
Fork in the Road
Short Story by Natalia Lialina
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Someone knocked at the door – first quietly as if they were apologizing for an inappropriately late disturbance, then louder, with impatience and even a tone of demand. Melanya got up from her warm spot up on the Russian stove.
“Who is it at such a late hour?” she asked cautiously.
“Forgive us, dear sister, could we please stay overnight?”
The voice which asked for shelter sounded like no voice Melanya had ever heard before – in the intonations of the stranger there was something calming, something promising peace. The night was blustery, and Melanya had a tender spot in her heart for travelers who were far away from their familiar bed. She lit a candle and with very little hesitance opened the door. Two pilgrims appeared in front of her. One was tall, skinny, with big gray eyes which had a strange light in them as if they were illuminated by a magic lantern. The other one was short and a bit chubby, with small brown eyes that seemed annoyed or maybe just tired. Both were wearing long black cassocks which Melanya knew unmistakably were monk’s habits.
“Good night, dear sister, and thank you for being so kind to us exhausted strangers,” said the tall monk. “I am brother Timofei, and this is brother Dimitri.”
“Come in, have a seat, take a load off your feet,” said Melanya closing the heavy door behind them.
She opened a woven basket in which was half of the day’s loaf and offered the bread and some water to the monks. They broke the half-loaf in equal parts and ate it quickly, drinking water from the copper drinking ladle.
“Thank you, dear sister. We haven’t eaten since yesterday morning,” said brother Dimitri as he looked around the humble hut.
The home was clean and small, almost tiny, though enough for one person to be comfortable. Other than the warm spot on the top of the Russian stove, it only had two hard wooden benches to accommodate the sudden visitors. As they finished the late supper, they washed and wiped off their faces with a clean towel that Melanya offered them, and thanked the woman. Melanya snuffed out the candle that had made a dim light in the otherwise dark hut, wished the monks good sleep and went to bed. Sleeping in one room with the monks seemed somehow both a little strange and at the same time very peaceful.
“God, forgive me,” she whispered and fell deeply asleep.
This year's had been a long and unusually hot summer, and the farmer's job had been far more difficult to complete than in years past. But as the leaves started turning yellow at the end of August, it had become stormier and colder, as if Mother Nature had finally awakened and remembered that it was time to cool down and to bring some rain to both the fields, exhausted by heat and drought, and the farmers, exhausted by heat and work. It seemed Mother Nature knew it was time to give the earth some long awaited relief from the fires that had killed so many crops and woods in the neighboring villages. As the long delayed rain cleansed the air, the villagers had danced in the showers and stretched their hands up to the sky, crying and laughing with joy, tears on their faces, both from their eyes and from the merciful forces of nature.
“Do you live here alone, sister?” asked brother Dimitri in the morning.
“All alone, brother, I’m a widow,” said Melanya.
“And how big is the village?”
“A dozen houses.”
“How-come yours is so far from the rest?”
“My husband, God forgive his sinful soul, liked to live by himself, mind his own business.”
“Say, dear sister, what happened to him?” asked brother Timofei.
“Got drunk, as always. Drowned in the river. It was a hot summer.”
Melanya pressed her lips tightly together, and brother Timofei stopped questioning her any further.
“Do you mind, dear sister, if we stay here one more night before we continue our long journey again?”
“There is enough room, stay if you like.”
“There is enough room, stay if you like.”
So the two monks stayed one more day and one more night, helping the young widow with her small farm, cutting and putting away firewood for the stove and even cooking a hearty dinner.
“I see they teach you everything in the monastery – you are not afraid of any work, not even ashamed of women’s jobs,” said Melanya as the three of them sat down to have some rest and a well deserved meal.
Brother Dimitri only grinned.
“There is no such a thing as a woman’s job,” said brother Timofei. “Not when you’re a monk. Work is work. It’s all the same in the eyes of God.”
They continued their meal in silence, and after cleaning the dishes off the chunky wooden table, Melanya, as always, scraped the surface of the table with an old knife. When Brother Dimitri left the hut, his fellow monk said to Melanya,
“Say, dear sister, what happened to you? I noticed you have deep scars on your right arm. And please forgive me for saying so and don’t get angry, but there is a rip on your pretty underskirt, as if you cut a part of it.”
A dark cloud fell over Melanya’s pretty face as she shifted her thick eyebrows together. Was brother Timofei who seemed such a kind soul only pretending to be a monk, God’s servant, while in fact he was like any man in the village, looking at her underskirt? A wolf in sheep’s clothing?
As if brother Timofei read her mind, he rushed to say quietly,
“Forgive me, sister, I see that my words offended you. I will not speak of it again.”
After the long day filled with work, Melanya prepared a steam bath, a good old Russian banya, to honor the unexpected helpers. With birch brooms prepared by her late husband that summer, the monks had a proper steam bath and a good night's sleep. Only Melanya could not fall asleep. The tall monk’s words sounded in her ears, not letting her fall asleep peacefully, as she usually would after a good day of work and a good rest in banya.
The monks got up with the first roosters. Melanya offered them a loaf of freshly baked bread and a jug of milk for their journey. How far they would travel, how many days or weeks - God only knew. When the young widow again had a moment alone with brother Timofei she said, “Come with me first. It’s not too far from here. Then you’ll continue your journey."
Walking through wind-fallen trees they arrived at the edge of a river. The water, which flowed slowly where the small wooden houses of the village decorated the lower banks, here, at the high bank, moved rapidly and almost violently. There, on the tall white birch, quite naked after all the rain and storms which autumn brought to the land, brother Timofei spotted a piece of white fabric. From the uneven shape and torn lace, he recognized the missing piece of Melanya’s underskirt.
“I did not take it off the tree,” said the young widow. “He was drinking as he always was, all the five years we were together after our wedding in the church. But this past summer, it got worse. I thought it couldn’t get worse. I thought…”
Melanya covered her face with her hands and cried as freely and loudly as a wounded animal would cry, not afraid of being heard in the thick forest.
The fast river, the piece of an underskirt, and the animal cry of a beautiful young widow, brought the mosaic together. He stretched his hands towards her.
“There, there, sister...”
“I know I’m a sinner. There is no forgiveness, I know it, I know. What will happen to me, brother?”
The monk looked so young to her, so pure in the early morning light there by the vigorous river. The monk could have been her brother, the one who disappeared in the smoke of the last war where hundreds and thousands of soldiers and officers had vanished. Her husband could have been one of them, disappeared or killed as her older brother had been, an older brother who stayed forever younger than her. The monk could be one of them, lost as so many men were on the fields of war. But his cassock had saved him just as a deep wound had saved her husband. They had survived.
Brother Timofei held her cold hands in his, waiting as she cried out all her tears which swept down her face, shimmering on her cheeks.
“There are many roads here on earth, dear sister. We pick one and follow it. When we see a fork in the road, we again pick one road and follow it. Then we see another fork, and another one, and another one. There are many roads, sister, more roads than you and I can know. And even more forks.”
When the monks had gone on their way, Melanya returned to her hut, put all her modest belongings into a big woolen shawl that her late mother had given her on the day of her wedding, tied it, closed the door behind her and left the village.
September 28, 2015