Euthymios and Simonos
I knelt and peeked through a crack low in the door. Two men stood just outside, robed in furs, laden with packs and dragging a litter burdened with more packs. With heads thrown back they were bellowing a song that was mournful, and, if better sung, might have been truly beautiful. I thought I discerned a few words of Greek in their lyrics. I doubted that they saw me peeking, so I rose and eased open the door. The larger of the two then looked at me but kept on singing. The other, who did not look, seemed to be leaning heavily upon his companion. I watched a bit longer, and then abruptly they stopped. I stared at them for some time longer, and they at me. But what could I do? For as I held open the door, the bite in the air told of an especially cold night ahead. Here it was nearly bedtime and they with no shelter but what I could offer.
I looked over toward Laïsha. “They are Greeks,” she said, “singing a song of praise to their god.”
“I thought so,” I agreed vacantly. Turning back to the singers I bowed and motioned for them to enter.
“Peace be upon this house!” said the taller, more alert one in a fluid likeness of our Slavonic tongue, and he touched the lintel as he ducked and followed me inside. He was bearing up the other, who repeated the “Peace” as I moved to help support him.
“You have chosen wisely to accept us,” the alert, tall one said cheerfully. “I am Euthymios, although not the Seleucian Hermit of the same name from Mount Athos, and this is my brother Simonos.”
Simonos nodded firmly, but with pain.
“We have traveled from Greece and have spent a glorious spring in the land of Boris, the Khan of Bulgária — a brilliant ruler although not yet ready to accept the message of the Gospel. But, while there, we have better learned to speak your language — see how we barely move our lips!” Euthymios announced gaily, and as he spoke, I suddenly felt very weak, cold, and pale. Did they seek Sadruk, my master? Sadruk had spoken of passing through Bulgária, somewhere in the direction of Greece. Would others, such as the magistrate of Pinea, inquire whether these Greeks had brought word of my master? (I had let it be supposed lately that he was even now in the Bulgar mountains or in Greece.)
“You are in need of medical care,” I observed as we lowered Simonos to the bench inside the door. He nodded. “And I am a physician of Greek training,” I added. He glanced up with a pathetic look of hope in his weary eyes.
“Did you hear that, Brother?” Euthymios clapped him on the back, knocking the fur wrap from Simonos’s thin shoulders. “Did I not say, when you offered to lie down in the road and die only two stanzas ago, that if we sing ‘Come Faithful, Raise the Song’ our Master would surely come to our aid?” Inhaling earnestly, Euthymios spread his arms as if to embrace the house. “And did I not quote, first: ‘O, that I had in the wilderness a lodging place for travelers!’ And then say, only moments later: ‘Brother, I see the smoke of a hearth!’? And is this just any house, Simonos? No! In all the world, it would be the home of a physician! ‘Honor the physician for his services, for our Master created him. His skill comes from the Most High. Our Master has created medicines from the earth, and a sensible man will not disparage them. Our Master has imparted knowledge to men that by their use of his marvels he may win praise; by using them the physician relieves pain. There is no end to the works of our Master who spreads health over the whole…’”
“Brother, cease!” Simonos pleaded.
“I was almost finished,” Euthymios countered defensively. Then, turning to me: “I was commending you with the words of Yeshua, son of Sirach, whose words of wisdom no doubt are still alien to you.”
I was being honored, somehow, I supposed. But then Simonos seemed to insult me, croaking: “‘Our good Master gave us this natural attribute: When a sick man sees his physician, he rejoices, even though, perhaps, he gains nothing from him.’ Thus I challenge you, Physician, with words from the Ladder of Giannis Climacus.”
Without their furs, the men both looked younger than they had at first. Euthymios appeared to be the elder of the two, tall, dark-complected, and blessed with rich, curly, dark brown hair. Without his outer wraps he still wore a peculiar, tall black cap. Simonos was shorter, similar in rounded features, but devoid of top hair. He had come inside wearing a similar hat but it now lay atop the furs he had lowered to the floor. His head was loosely covered by a thick black hood attached to his robe. His head was bald and shiny only on the top, but naturally so and not shaven. From one ear around the back to the opposite ear he had a band of thick, black hair that curled toward his shoulders. Both men had dark beards that hung long and curly, groomed square below the neck. Each man wore a prominent ornament over his chest, suspended around the neck. In both cases it was a dull-metal cross, that of Euthymios with more artistry applied to the ends and edges.
Euthymios spoke our language, interspersing a pleasing and sometimes comical mixture of words from Greek or other languages. He kept up a constant effusion of such talk as I tried to gain Simonos’s attention and learn what his trouble might be. It turned out that his feet were both frozen and swollen, the skin cracked but too cold to bleed. What’s more, his throat was raw and sore, which may have accounted for some of the offensiveness of the singing.
The shoes the pair wore were constructed of bark, lined with fleece and bound with strips of leather. I slowly and gingerly removed Simonos’s shoes while he looked skyward and winced in agony. Euthymios hovered over his brother’s feet as well and explained that the light footwear in which they had set out from Greece had disintegrated before they were out of sight of the Black Sea.
“We lost our donkey yesterday,” Simonos remarked. I must have appeared confused, for he went on immediately as massaged one foot: “She had become weak already, so we gradually shouldered most of her load, and then, yesterday…”
“She died?” I asked.
“Simonos nodded, apparently too broken-hearted to answer aloud.
“We had passed a little house early in the morning,” Euthymios began. “We spent the night on the ground almost within sight of that house but didn’t know it was there.”
“Polotnoy’s house,” I told them. “I wonder why he wasn’t home.”
Simonos continued: “So, we passed the house, and the donkey became restless, as if wanting to turn in there…”
“What is this?” I heard Euthymios exclaim suddenly, behind me. I had been trying to ignore his other exclamations until I heard this. He stood erect and faced the bed. “Woman, are you ill? Simonos, how provident! Dear Physician, is this your wife?”
I looked at him and then at Laïsha. She was lying in bed, still suffering her persistent nausea, but in this instant was staring at the three of us clustered opposite the door. I looked back at Euthymios and nodded.
“Then it is to your benefit as well as ours that we have found each other!” said the man who sounded like a talking trumpet.
I explained that Laïsha had suffered a crushing blow to the ribs in an accident, and that more recently she had been suffering the effects of a plague-like illness.
I prepared a dish of cool (to him, warm!) water for Simonos to soak his feet. Gently I washed them and lightly massaged them, then left him thus on the bench to rest and soak. When I’d straightened, I introduced myself, Kolyek, and identified my lady as my wife Laïsha. I thought she groaned when I said this, and I half looked at her to see her gazing at the roof in apparent resignation to the masquerade. I judged the two men to be in their early thirties, while I was right around twenty-one and my lady almost eighteen but looking greater than thirty.
“You may be fortunate,” Euthymios announced, “for I am known as a healer also, although it is not I but my Master who heals through me. Simonos has the gift as well. Am I right, Brother? Simonos has many unusual gifts. Perhaps, Woman, you will tell us of your trouble before long, that we can have a prayer for your recovery.”
“It may be well to start with Simonos, here,” I suggested, “for his affliction is acute and perhaps the more serious. While she is truly ill, Laïsha has been improving steadily.”
“I would accept prayers,” she said faintly, and the rest of us fell briefly silent.
Euthymios advanced to the bed and dropped to his knees beside her. “You are a disciple of the Christ, then?” he asked hopefully.
“No. But I have heard of your religion and your god. I would gladly consider what your god may do for me, and I in turn for it.”
“Oh, Simonos!” Euthymios gushed, back on his feet. “Do miracles take place in a vacuum? Did you hear the woman?” He turned back to Laïsha. “We shall be about it, then, soon. Very soon. But it takes concentration. I think first we should discuss arrangements for our board and for the services your husband is rendering.”
“You may stay,” I said flatly.
“And we will pay!” Euthymios withdrew a purse from within a pouch that he wore and placed two small ingots of silver onto the shelf at the rear of the house which I use as a cooking area.
“We are near Pinea, are we not?” Euthymios asked. I nodded. “Did I not tell you, Brother…?”
“Yes, yes,” Simonos interrupted him, annoyed.
I wanted to laugh, and inwardly rejoiced to see that Simonos had a spirit after all, even though it was sorely repressed by his affliction.
“We are entering a new region, Simonos. This will be the northerly limit of our journey. Oh, My Friends, it has been a difficult trip, for we left only weeks ago from an area bathed in sunshine and the flowers of spring, and have walked steadily backward into winter. And yet, this is not our first suchjourney, merely our longest so far.” (I said inside myself: Turgey would seize this speech as evidence of his experience with the interminable winter he had described to me.)
Euthymios was holding forth: “We have come to bring the good news of Yeshua, Christos, to the people of this frontier called Ukraina. ‘Yeshua,’ we say, but in this region the Master’s holy name sounds more like ‘Yesha.’” (If there was a difference, I didn’t detect it.)
“Tell them who we are,” Simonos rasped, more as a suggestion than a command. I added more warm water to his foot bath.
“Thank you, Brother, yes,” said Euthymios. “Dear Quiet People, I have told you our names; I am Euthymios…”
The one with hurting feet leaned toward me, clearly intending to interrupt: “In his youth we called him ‘Euphorios.’”
The orator went on as if no such remark had been made: “Simonos and I are born of the same womb, I before him. And we are brothers in our relationship to Yeshua, Christos, our Master and advocate. Simonos is a hieromonk, although not a megaloschemos like our associate, Mefhodi (perhaps you’ve heard of him). Simonos comes from the Monastery of Saint Giannis the Forerunner at Stoudios. I am a bishop in the service of our Patriarch, Photios of Konstantinopolis, although no one would call me ‘Little Father,’ or Batyushka, in your tongue. You may address either of us as ‘Holy Father.’”
I agreed with him there, I said inside myself; Batyushka did not fit his size. Euthymios was quite near my idea of a giant, with flowing dark hair, while his blood brother, his head bald as an eyeball, was as small and fine-boned as a callow youth still yearning for whiskers. Of whiskers, however, both men were well equipped. As for ‘Holy Father,’ this title sounded frankly ridiculous, so I let it pass.
“We hope to establish a northern congregation of believers somewhere here in the frontier of Sarmatia — in Pinea perhaps, and once done, to move eastward into the region of the Khazars. Our former abbot at Polychrono, Mefhodi of Thessaloniki, and his brother-by-birth as well as in-the-Christ, Konstantin, have by this time opened the land of the Khazars to receive the things we have to teach. We are to explore this area and then make our way eastward to join with them as they meet with the Kagan of the Khazars.”
“We are the parabolani…” Simonos groaned as he shifted his feet in the bowl, “…the risk-takers.”
“Simonos is referring to a Turkic people who worship Tangrï,” Euthymios added in assent. “I fear — no, I imagine that our risk is great. For, as we have entered this land, ‘we have had no rest and we have been afflicted at every turn, troubles all around us and fears within.’”
“‘Your garments did not wear out on you, nor did your foot swell these last forty days,’” Simonos taunted. Through the coming weeks we would hear the brothers banter this way nearly every day: making conversation using lines of ancient scripture.
Euthymios was unperturbed: “Ah, good brother, but I too feel chastened.” Then he resumed: “Many missionaries of the church have suffered terrible adversity at the hands of these and other pagan followers. We have not come alone, though,” Euthymios announced as if practicing to give a speech before an assembly of hundreds. Pacing our small house, he went on: “We have merely plodded ahead of our fellow-travelers, because we believe other teachers of the Gospel have not ranged this deeply into this forest. We set out by sea from Konstantinopolis, bound for Cherson or Theodosia, but were driven ashore in a storm and landed near Varna. There we decided to wait many weeks until we were blessed to join with a small caravan which included others of our mission also bound for Semender.”
As he was thus speaking, I was bustling between Laïsha and Simonos, listening but giving little thought to his oration.
Euthymios continued: “After some days we took our leave of that slow procession, though, and came on ahead, going where God might lead us, but we are pledged to rejoin our caravan at the crossing of the Dnepr, or at Cherson if they have already crossed the River. People of our mission now seem to be swarming all over Sarmatia. We enjoy an adventure, do I not speak truly, Simonos?”
“My feet have enjoyed the thrill of our adventure more than any other of my parts, Euthymios,” came the glum reply.
Then, from Euthymios: “We are no longer the fleet-of-foot, I admit.”
Turning to me, Simonos explained: “We are the diplomats, the fleet-of-mind. As I feel right now, though, I’d trade half my diplomat’s mind for a pair of mercurial feet.”
This itinerary told me nothing useful, but I accepted it as worthy information just the same. I advised them that they were a fast four hours’ walk, or a third of the sun’s daytime arc, from Pinea. We talked some about the village and the people while I served a meal that was deliberately meager. (I hoped to keep our reputation for hospitality at a minimum.) As we ate, they finished the story of their donkey. As they progressed northward where grazing was land was more and more scarce, they were able to purchase sacks of grain. But they rationed the grain, which fasting the donkey seemed to tolerate. They went so far as to feed her every third or fourth day and then would let her eat all she wanted. And she seemed not to want more than a day’s ration at that. Water was plentiful due to the springtime runoff. Her response between feedings was simply to follow them, and during the first two days after they left Drizha, their progress was discouraging. The donkey began panting and her breath, never pleasant anyway, became fetid. Then came bursts of diarrhea. With this development, the brothers had unburdened her, and on her final morning, still one day before arriving at our house, they watched her wander, disoriented, from the trail and stagger into the woods just past Polotnoy’s house. Euthymios followed for some distance until the ailing beast flopped to the ground and swung her head around to glare at him with pitiful, pleading eyes. Convulsions soon followed, and thus he left her there.
As I was helping Laïsha prepare for the night behind her curtain, she prompted me to tell the brothers of my master’s current sojourn in the south. This I dreaded to do, for what if they knew him, and what if they knew in what city he would be if he were alive and could truly have been there, and what if they knew of his son as well? The questions they could ask me would be insufferable. Still, after her urging, I relented.
Mercifully, they knew him not, but regretted that they had not known to seek him before leaving on their trek, for Sadruk might have wanted to travel with them or to send messages home.
We discussed the idea of praying for Laïsha’s healing, and, with Laïsha’s agreement, set it to take place early the next morning. As the rest of us prepared to retire for the night, Euthymios had the idea that we should move Laïsha’s bed before the stove, there to receive the maximum warmth on this extremely cold night. With uncommon commotion we accomplished this move, keeping it raised as I had fixed it before, and placed it with the foot of the bed toward the very opening to the coals.
I expected the brothers to lay out their bedding on the top slab of the stove. Instead, to make things really cozy, Euthymios and Simonos volunteered to sleep in the very tight space beneath the bed with their feet thrust against the blaze. They explained that they must sleep on the hard, cold floor because they were just then undertaking a personal sacrifice in reverence for their Master’s suffering. I shrugged at this insufficient explanation. When the beds were set and while the brothers were kneeling in mumbled prayer in a far corner, using their hands to stir the air before them in unison in precise gestures, Laïsha and I exchanged glances. She rolled her eyes and patted the bed cover beside her.
I crawled in among the furs. “I’m sorry, but I guess we must do this,” I whispered.
“I feel very ill, but it will be comforting to have your warmth,” she replied.
“They will have to stay here for some time. Simonos cannot walk to Pinea now.”
“I have no trouble with the idea. I have heard of their ability to heal, those of the Christ, and I have faith in their powers.”
I felt a wave of resentment and wanted to ask Laïsha where her faith in my own healing powers had fled. I lay silent. Then I thought back to my earlier musings about determination. This offer from Euthymios had strengthened her will to be healed, so it could not be all bad. Let it be as they proposed, then. Maybe I would learn something from observing their method that I could apply in my own practice of medicine.
The brothers said a blessing in Greek over our bed before they crawled beneath us, and all became profoundly silent. For some time I pondered this silence. It was deeply restful, but at the same time deeply disturbing. No trees creaked outside. No branches clattered. No owl hooted. The fire, even though it glowed, didn’t sputter. The nighttime rustle of mice and skitter of insects were absent. I couldn’t even hear anyone breathing.
I said inside myself: I should make a sound and see whether I can hear it. But something — fear that I had lost my hearing? — made me resist that. Then I wondered whether Laïsha were even still in bed with me, for I took care not to press against her or otherwise touch her while I lay with her, (unless consoling her as I had done during Raznoy’s visit), both as a precaution against causing her pain and out of respect for the fact that she might one day become another man’s wife and might wish to retain her honor. Nonetheless, if she were missing from the bed, how did she escape? I had not yet slept, nor moved at all, nor detected any movement beside me.
My right hand crept outward from my side, beneath the coverings, and was suddenly caught in the clutch of her left! I raised my head and turned to look her way. There beside her knelt Euthymios, head bent in prayer, a hand placed on Laïsha’s forehead. Still I heard not a sound, and if his voice were employed in the praying, then I had certainly gone deaf.
I lay my head back and relaxed. Oddly, once I discovered this situation, I felt no more apprehensions about the brothers nor anger at their professed powers to heal. Laïsha held my hand for a long time, and I know not when I fell asleep, but when I awoke to the bright light of advanced morning there were sounds in profusion.
Birds chirped excitedly outside the open door. Simonos sat on an up-ended log with his back to the stove and was making a hoarse wheeze which I interpreted immediately as a laugh. Beside me Laïsha was sitting, turned toward the door, and was also laughing delightedly.
Without rising, I turned to see. Euthymios crouched in the open doorway, holding out a long plank. On the end of the plank sat two or three small birds, pecking at some substance placed there, and other birds fluttered about it. Slowly, Euthymios was backing into the house, bringing the birds in with him.
Then, on a cue from one of their own, the door yard roared with the rush of wing beats as all the birds swirled in a flock out over my sinister brush pile and disappeared into the forest.