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.