Orthodox America


A. Sevastyanov

On the very edge of the village of Varlyzhikha, on the crest of the steep bank of the river, under the spreading boughs of a century-old linden tree, stood the little house of the widow Maremyana. She had died three years before, leaving no one after her, and her poor little cottage, passed as an inheritance to the world, that is, to the community at large, was set aside as a lodging house for the poor.

At the time of our story, a man of God, a wanderer, Nikodimushka, was living there. Who he was, no one really knew: a man of God, and that was that.

Nikodimushka had come there in the spring, when the snow had just melted, and he was still there three months later because he had taken seriously ill: some wounds had opened up on his legs, which had walked, perhaps, hundreds and hundreds of miles.

His staid, elderly appearance and the noble cast of his features inspired universal love and respect. At first the people of Varlyzhikha took turns feeding him, bringing food and drink to the ailing wanderer, but now, when intense work was required in the fields, they sometimes forgot about him, each relying on the other to take care of him.

Only little Anna visited him every day.

She came to love "grandpa," as she called Nikodimushka, and he came to love this little girl with light-brown hair, who was the age that a granddaughter of his might have been. He told her many interesting things about himself, about foreign countries in which he had been in his time; but most of all he held her attention with his knapsack, in which were various vials of holy water from one or another holy place where saints had struggled, little crosses and icons, dried plants, and small stones. But the main thing was the books - big, heavy ones in thick leather or wooden covers with copper clasps. Although Annushka, as she was called, could read, she little understood what was written in them. Nevertheless, she loved to read them to "grandpa," and he loved listening to her. And now in her tiny fingers she holds a flickering candle. It has grown dark in the cabin, and Annushka, her head bent low over a book, is reading slowly, running her finger along the lines of the widely-spaced Slavonic print.

"My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior. . ." her quiet little voice can be heard.

"What does that mean, grandpa?" she asks, obviously not having quite caught the meaning of what she has read. But he is looking somewhere far, far away, and his lips are whispering something.

"He must be praying," Annushka thinks and decides not to pester the old man. Nikodimushka had formerly been a serf. As a young man, he had been forcefully separated from the girl whom he loved, and because of the slander of evil people he, for some alleged offense, was given out of turn to the army, where, in accordance with the regulations of the time, he had served a full twenty-five years.

Annushka's breath was taken away when Nikodimushka told her of all the misfortunes that had rained down upon him.

"You must be angry with those people, grandpa."

"No, child. . . . I forgave them all. . . . All of them, for everything ," he repeated.

"And why should I get angry?" continued Nikodimushka, gazing steadily at the little girl, who was listening to him attentively.

"Getting upset doesn't remedy the situation, it only makes it more painful. But if you are at peace, and especially if you pray for your enemies and those who offend you, then it suddenly becomes much easier."

"Do you mean that we have to love everybody, grandpa?" Annushka continued.

"Everyone, little daughter. . . . Love everyone, especially the unfortunate. The fortunate person is so happy that he does not appreciate your love, but the unfortunate one will understand it. . . . Oh, how quickly he'll understand it."

"And who are these unfortunates, grandpa?"

"Grandpa" thought for a minute, but then, shaking his head a bit, answered:  "We, the homeless orphans, without kith or kin, so to speak, are unfortunates. Prisoners also are unfortunate.  Whoever has been imprisoned for anything, believe me, is unfortunate. After all, it's not good fortune that pushes someone into crime, but some kind of misfortune. Then. . . then all the lonely, orphaned, poverty-stricken, ill, and suffering. There are many unfortunate people in the world, perhaps more than fortunate ones, because good fortune is given out sparingly. Of hundreds of people, there may be one wholly fortunate person, and that one is hard to find."

"And we have to love them all?"

"Love them all, help them all, ease the sufferings of one person by a word, another by a show of affection, a third by a deed or by giving care. Oh, can you understand this?"

"I understand, grandpa. I understand it all."

"Well, that's very, very good, child. What a smart little girl I have here. Let me pat your head."

"Grandpa" patted Annushka's head. She looked at his yellow, wizened, and sunken cheeks and thought: "Grandpa must have gone through a whole lot in his time, if he learned to love and forgive like that. . . ."

Annushka wanted to find out even more, if only Nikodimushka would tell her. She could not hold back: "All right, grandpa. Tell me what the sun is all about. Why does it warm us as it does and why does everyone like it so much?"

 "Silly girl, look what you're asking," Nikodimushka shook his head. "Well, the sun is God's eye, which is why everyone loves it. It caresses everyone, gives life to everything. How could we not love it?"

"And the stars?" the curious little girl wanted to know.

"The stars are the eyes of angels. They watch over us at night."

The next day would come, and Annushka would find a minute to go to see Nikodimushka. She never went empty-handed, but always brought something: sometimes a potato, sometimes an onion and a piece of bread, sometimes a fresh cucumber from her aunt's garden. She would not finish these bits at meals, but would bring them to the homeless old man.

Nikodimushka was touched by the little girl's attention. He called her his "benefactress," "good angel," and other affectionate names. One day Annushka came to her aunt, her eyes full of tears. "Nikodimushka has gotten really bad: he's probably going to die. . . ."

"And good riddance to him!" her aunt answered spitefully.

"Aunty, why do you talk that way?"

"Because he's a good-for-nothing, that's why. For years he's loafed all around, and now he's dropped in on us to die. Now we'll have to bury him at public expense. The head of every household will have to pay. And for what? Is it our fault that he is homeless?"

"No, auntie, he says that he can pay for everything himself: for the funeral and for the coffin, too."

"Well, why didn't you say so in the first place?" her aunt snapped. "The man may really be dying, and to think we abandoned him like a stray kitten. We must tell the church warden so that he can take care of everything."

"I'll run to him," offered Annushka.

"Now what do you know about these things? Just a moment, I'll go myself."

And Aunt Afimya, throwing a scarf on her head, ran off to the warden. The next morning, Nikodimushka received the sacrament of Holy Unction. Even though it was a work day, the cabin was filled with people gathered to pray for the homeless old man. Old men and old women were there, and even little children came running to the cabin. At the front of the crowd, of course, was Annushka, who would not take her tear-filled eyes off "grandpa."  The priest celebrated the sacrament of Holy Unction. Nikodimushka repeatedly and devoutly made the sign of the cross, but he obviously was weakening with each minute. When the sacrament was finished, he asked the priest to hear his confession and give him Communion.

All the people left the cabin for a few minutes in order to leave the sick man alone with the priest, and then, after his confession was finished, everyone came back into the cabin to bid farewell to Nikodimushka. He lay there peacefully, shining with some kind of internal light. Searching out the church warden with his eyes, he called him over.

"Here. . . under the pillow. . . money. . . . Give some to the priest for his labors, and the rest is for my burial," he instructed.

Then, likewise running his eyes through the crowd of those present and finding Annushka, Nikodimushka called her as well, and when she had come to him, he placed his hand on her head and said quietly:

"And to you, child, I leave my bag and everything that you find in it. That is for your kindness... "

The old man was barely able to utter these last words, and started quietly to die.

"Grandpa. . . Nikodimushka. . . I don't need anything, only don't die!" exclaimed Annushka tearfully.

But the old man soon departed to a better world.

"Well, come on, hurry up, let's see how the old man rewarded you!" said

Aunt Afimya, burning with curiosity, as she pounced on Nikodimushka's bag. She opened it and removed its contents piece by piece. On top lay a small icon, perhaps the one he had received as a blessing when he left home. With it were medals and crosses that he had received during his military service. Then there were several vials of holy water, some dried plants, pebbles, three big books. . . and at the very bottom of the bag, in a special compartment, a kind of package. In it was a Saint George Cross, a military award for valor - Nikodimushka was a war hero! Besides that, there were eight gold ten-ruble coins, and a small note, written in pencil on a crumpled piece of paper: Love thy neighbor as thyself. Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. . . .

"Well, Annushka, you're a rich girl now!" exclaimed Aunt Afimya, who had never expected to encounter such a hoard of money in the bag of a rootless stranger.

But Annushka knew very well why this reward had come her way. Nikodimushka's note accompanying the money explained everything.

Translated by Seraphim F. Englehardt from Nezabudka, a Russian children's magazine, and slightly adapted.