04 November 2009
On our second evening on Solovki a man knocked on our door. Sister Nektaria answered. He wished to speak to the “girl.” I was somewhat reluctant to go meet a stranger, but I ambled out into the cluttered corridor outside our apartment.
“Are you a nun too?” He looked like the type of guy that back home would outside a pharmacy on Carlisle Street before 9 am, eagerly sniffing at the closed doors to get his methadone supply.
“No,” I muttered.
“But you believe in God?” When I nodded carefully, appraising a blue tattoo peeking out of his flannel sleeve, he asked why. I don’t remember my answer, how do you talk about something as personal as faith? Whatever I straggled out in uncertain Russian seemed to satisfy him.
“I’ve done bad things,” he began and lit a Pyotr 1 cigarette. He told me about his life as a bandit in Odessa and the people he had hurt. His life had led him to murder. He wanted me to understand that clearly. I stood beside a broken bicycle on an island near the Arctic and heard the confession of a fugitive. We agreed to meet the following evening on the garden bench outside the block.
I awoke only to discover dread-heavy limbs. The cause of my consternation was the sight of the arc of the low lying sun coursing its ancient path and not the island's dark history. I was underqualified to discuss salvation and sin. The bandit, as I dubbed him, had refused the counsel of my aunt and Sister Nektaria. I tried to listen to a tour guide but all the details of 16th century church life and architecture were lost on me. I climbed rickety ladders into bell towers and watched dully as ladies in head scarves white washed great boulders of stone that make up the Kremlin's walls. The late afternoon light penetrated dense cloud with a sort of biblical effect – rays of golden light sprayed out like heaven’s daggers across the still cold water of the sea. Almost instinctively I could find the right dirt path home from the edge of the Kremlin. Sister Nektaria said I have the sense of direction of a dog and it didn’t sound at all like an insult.
Exhausted and full of fresh air I trudged to the bench after dinner. My companions warned me not to stay up too late chatting to bandits and went inside the apartment for tea. I watched the light in our place turn on, glanced at the marigolds and carnations on their last legs. A Ural motorcycle churned the dirt as it came down the side lane. Stray dogs with shaggy coats sniffed around front yards with carved picket fences. I waited until the sea breeze flipped direction with the onset of night and I could not see the slightly funereal flowers any more. Then I got up and joined the others for tea.