We are driving to Taganka to visit an icon, Matrona of Moscow. E has been with her mother for two days, and I am restless, unable to enjoy the three day weekend very much. N taps her hands on the steering wheel to some new music playing on the stereo. She runs a hand across the stubble on my chin, squeezes my arm for a moment.
"There may be very long lines." She says at one point.
I click pictures of random landmarks as we make our way across the city.
The convent is a sprawling collection of buildings behind a red brick wall. As we park a gypsy approaches us, a child in her arms. She accosts us with strange insults, then begs in a stream of crude Russian that I can barely understand. I see her hostile eyes, the way her mouth pokes out in a sort of snarl.
There are countless people in wheelchairs, hands outstretched.
I see rubles on the ground, not kopeks. They shine in the late afternoon sun and no one picks them up.
People stand in hushed groups, arm in arm against the cold. The lines curl around the walkways, along fences and then disappear. The rumble of a chainsaw is the only sound, a strange intrusion. Some take holy water from a glass-enclosed cistern. Some wander with handfuls of white flowers, giant lilies that are starting to freeze in the November air.
The icon is outside. People approach it one at a time, kissing the glass, kneeling, praying, crossing themselves again and again. There is no chaos here, no jumble of order, no VIP section. There are people who are sick, wounded, blind. There are people praying for their relatives who cannot leave the house. This is a place of last resorts, when medicine has failed.
She was born with empty eye sockets, lids covering nothing. Intended for the orphanage, her mother Natalia had a dream that a white bird with the same blindness visited her. She took this as a divine message and Matrona was not abandoned.
The icon is large, her habit a deep and calm shade of blue. One hand stands in the air, frozen in a state of forgiveness. We stand for a little while, drinking it all in. My hands are pulled into fists in my pockets trying to get warm. N looks at me, her face asking if we will join one of the lines. I gesture with my chin to just walk around a bit.
A heavy thud echoes through the convent. The chainsaw stops. The carcass of a tree rests on a bed of dry leaves.
I look at the faces around me, drinking in their pilgrimage, the hours of waiting that lead to a golden moment of attention, the focusing of energy and desire in the open air. Then the return home on the metro, of life dissolved back to the simple patterns of cooking dinner, brushing teeth, taking out garbage.
Back at the car, there are more gypsies now. That woman is carving the air with insults, waving her hands around, her child staring at us with wide eyes. We are in the car and they bang on the windows, palms slapping against the glass next to our faces. I think of the rubles on the sidewalk and see they are still there.
The street is thick with nervous, lurching traffic as the gypsy woman crosses it, the child dangling from her elbow, weaving around the cars.
I close my eyes. I cannot watch.
We drive as night falls. There is nothing obvious to do but fill the hours somehow. I feel a dark hand touching me as I try to call E and the phones are turned off. I see her being interrogated by her mother. I see her going to sleep without dinner, in a dark room with nothing but a few cats to keep her company.
We end up watching a film at home after sipping cups of strong black tea. N rests her head on my shoulder. There is a scene in the film when a young woman tells a story about a Russian astronaut on some solo mission. There is a constant tapping sound in the tiny spacecraft. He rips up the controls, trying to find the source of the sound. He cannot find it. Alone in space for days, the sound starts to drive him mad. He cannot sleep.
At one point he comes to an understanding. He must fall in love with this sound instead of hating it. He must drink it in, allow it to become some kind of music.
He does this somehow, and the sound is suddenly gone.
I am haunted by the story of the cosmonaut. I try to find out who it was based on, wondering if Gagarin is the hero once again. The story is a powerful one, one I want to live up to. I grow drunk with a hazy optimism, seeing a road to take.
I learn that the story is a just a fable, a wise and calculated fabrication. It is a tasty bit of filmmaking and nothing more. I have spent hours meditating on this transformation, the turning of pain and ugliness into beauty. I have coaxed myself to accept it is possible, convinced myself I can accomplish the same.
And now I understand how hard it is. Possible in fiction, maybe not in life.
In the light of morning, I watch N sleeping. There is one rose next to her from a bouquet I gave her weeks ago. She has saved one flower that has dried perfectly, frozen in gesture and life. I wonder why she keeps it with water and in a glass.
Maybe this is why I love her so much.