Faded Images of Saints — Leonid Bilmes

My boyhood summer vacations began with a boat ride from a little port in Kazan. The trip would either take an hour or fifteen minutes, depending on the vessel available on the day of travel. The lethargic passenger ship Omik, awkward and bulging, shaped like a shrunken cruise liner, took a whole hour to reach our village. I got seasick as a child and my sole source of comfort aboard the Omik were the gulls. They would fly at the stern for the duration of our journey: a white, hungry mob of squawks.  I would fling broken-up biscuits at them and watch them dive after the arcing morsels.

The quicker, less nauseous ride was on the Meteor. This was a much leaner vessel, sleek and white, and it looked like a catamaran bred with a speedboat. I loved it.

Its long white body seemed from a distance to hover above the water and I would always stand on its windy deck. I remember how opening the passenger cabin door would invade it with the industrial roar of its powerful engine. I would then stand tiptoe, peering over the white railing at the rushing foaming trails and eddies of water below. Facing the wind I would close my eyes and let my nostrils imbibe the stale scent of the Volga – that great river a longsuffering witness to Vikings, Tsars, bleeding veterans, and Bruce Chatwin.

I would crease my eyes against the blowing torrent of air and scent, and watch the green bank in the distance. Occasionally a strayed spray would dab my cheeks. I could see old boats moored along the shoreline; little cottages sitting squat on the rising bank; wobbly red buoys, seesawing with the V spreading waves behind us. I waved at the men in the nearby fishing boats, and sometimes they raised a hand in return. I eagerly scanned the shoreline ahead, and soon the familiar church ruin came into view. The tall, grey tower protruded from the general greenness of the rapidly approaching bank.

The defunct church stood on a hilltop a short walk away from our dacha. It was a relic of the nation-wide purging of churches during the heyday of the Bolshevik era. I still don’t understand why the church remained standing there year after year; it was still standing, I have been told, when my family revisited our dacha, fourteen years ago. Perhaps it will stand undisturbed for years to come, like the remnants of a Grecian temple, or like those isolated Roman aqueducts that still walk the Italian countryside – copycats of Paul Klee’s viaducts breaking ranks. Of course it will not be around that long. I guess that the people of the village were just too poor, or perhaps too nostalgic, to bother with demolishing the traces left from earlier destruction.

Splashing memory with a dab of imagination, I now conjure up its vague image. It stands naked and skeletal, unadorned and unembellished. The gold-finished cupolas are long gone and only a solitary cross stands its ground against time, mounted on its rusted dome. Looking up from within, you can see the tall tower, the cross yawing windward, and the empty circular windows revealing blue sky. See how the swifts deftly skirt all over it in pursuit of midges (Swifts never rest from their flight, I’ve read, some not even once their whole lives. I wonder how long swifts live?) Rubble lies on the thresholds of the entrance and exits – the two can no longer be distinguished. The broad lower windows are fun to climb up and perch upon their sills. Not even a shard of mosaic glass is left. A profusion of weeds and wild shrubs covers the perimeter of the church grounds, and some even manage to profuse themselves out of fissures high up its walls. The weeds are a menace: exploring the church grounds you will often find your arm itching crazily after brushing along a poisonous leaf, or wince as you prick yourself on a thistle’s thorny stalk.

My grandmother always warned me not to go inside the church. A stray brick could fall on my head, she would say. There were indeed large slabs of concrete and dislodged masonry scattered in the dust among the interior garden of weeds. The other boys and I wouldn’t play inside the church often, but whenever we did, I remember how our voices would soften, although not quiet to whispers, as we made our entrance. When we spoke the echoes made our words louder and more resonant. Occasionally the braggart among us would whoop loudly to impress with his boldness, the imbecile, and a harsh sonic ring would ricochet off the bare walls. We would then all look-up at the towering ceiling, only half-laughing, and see patches of blue sky looking back at us through staring spaces where windows should be.

We would not stay for long inside the church. It had a persistent, pungently-sweet smell of livestock. The floor was always littered with goat droppings. They stood out black and pea-shaped against the white dust in little clusters. Curved trails of urine lay in clotted lines formed by the dry dust. Sometimes entering the church we would see the bleating culprits fleeing from our echoing voices. Occasionally, a fresh pile of green-yellow cowpat lay in a round, pudgy heap. Once dry, it formed crumbling flat disks made white by the pervasive dust. These crappy disks didn’t Frisbee very well, though we tried.

We soon discovered partially erased pictures painted on the interior walls of the church. They were, of course, frescoes of saints: those flat Byzantine decorations indigenous to Russian Orthodox churches. I did not attend church services as a child, but I was nevertheless familiar with this iconography from seeing my grandmother’s shrine of icons.

I now see those frescoes only dimly, but I remember figures of men dressed in blue, green and red robes. They all stand side by side in a straight line, heads in profile, all facing in the same direction. Their faces were bearded and imploring. They all poised their right hand in that odd gesture: the index and middle fingers pointing upwards, and the thumb touching the ring and little fingers. There were other faded frescoes painted higher up on the crumbling walls; but memory is lethargic and partial. Those images will always remain dark, inaccessible blanks to my mind’s eye.

When I remember those summers, I see scenes of playfulness: swimming on my back in the cool Volga river; sticking my finger in the gulping O mouth of grandfather’s freshly-caught catfish; squirming at the tangy, sour taste of apples, picked from trees in a wild orchard; exploring the dystopian landscape of a disused brick factory. But the white, crumbling image of the ruined church is inseparably fused with these memories. Looking back with a little disgust, and a little wonder, I now picture those little clusters of goat droppings, and above them, the faded, austere, and sad faces of robbed saints.

I wrote these reminiscences a few years ago. I have since seen Tarkovsky’s cinematic masterpiece, Andrei Rublev. The Tartars sack the town and church of Vladimir – perhaps you’ll recall – and Rublev and the idiot girl, the holy fool, sit together in the rubble. Unsurprisingly enough, I am convinced that those images higher up the walls of the more prosaically sacked church of my childhood, those blindspots of my memory, were in fact so very similar to that great blue and gold icon of the Holy Trinity by the master painter Rublev – the icon that we suddenly see in glowing colour, in the film’s final moments, the camera myopically close to the its bright surface, tracking patiently, after over two hours of black and white, and that therefore appears to be the most colourful thing anywhere on this Earth.

Am I convinced, though? Did those higher images resemble Rublev’s Trinity? Does it matter, and if so, for a verification of what end? Perhaps one day I shall make my pilgrimage back to this source of childhood vision. I convince myself that I shall go.

Leonid Bilmes is a writer and partial academic. He was born, and then spent his childhood in, Russia, near Moscow. He then lived most of his life in the suburban sprawl of Johannesburg, South Africa. He now resides and studies in London. His reviews of a couple of books can be found online, and he is currently working on a book of short stories on themes darker.