The Saint, the Spy, the Witch, the Wolf
Ana sat on her bed attempting to sort all her thoughts, breathing deeply in self-taught exercise.
Pandora was the only thought to surface with any sense of clarity. That, and the struggle it had been, meeting with her handler, trying not to look at the grotesque skin on his face, with its medical curiosities, squamous and flaky, as if he were about to shed. In two weeks, Adalbert was sending her back to Bratislava, to uncover whoever or whatever was this Pandora, and from the sound of it, she was committed to never return home.
Moscow had become home long ago when she visited those three cherished times as a young girl from Romania. Then her greatest dream came true when her superiors moved her there. But Karl Marx was right, she reassured herself, and she would never doubt it, as Stalin was her witness, she had no country, only communism.
She had only just come from Bratislava when, after the train arrived she walked straight to the appointed café and Adalbert, greeting her like an old girlfriend from primary school, with his strange, crusty face, sat down and immediately proceeded to inform her, in Dutch, and with a pronounced lisp, that she would be returning. She would resume working at the hospital with two goals; to rise in leadership at the hospital and to uncover Pandora’s identity. It could take months, even years, he said, speaking in Russian. Even in Russian there was a lisp.
Ana sat with her back against the cold apartment wall and squeezed the one cushion on her bed, replaying everything Adalbert had said. It could take years to accomplish the task, he said. Fall in love, get married, have children, grow a family. Make a name for yourself so you can be trusted. You must then, slowly, over time, show small signs of being disgruntled with Prague and Moscow. You will be officially reprimanded but will remain protected so that, in time, you will get her attention. Pandora will seek you out when she feels you are an ally.
Why was he so certain Pandora was a woman? It could be an entire organization of dissenters. It then occurred to her that perhaps Pandora had been the reason she was in Bratislava all along, not just to be separated from Lida, as she had assumed, when Lida was sent to Bulgaria and she was ordered to Czechoslovakia.
That year in Bratislava she hadn’t forgotten Lida but she had fallen in love with Peter. Or had she? She didn’t know. The whole thing was such a confusion, she told herself. She had met him there, in that beautiful town, that enchanting riverbank of the Danube, that cultural and political centre of Slovakia. Maybe she had fallen in love, at Korzo, in the cafés, the bakeries, and milk bars between Michael’s Gate and Old Town Square. On long walks. On occasion, holding hands. A few times, a kiss or two, at the end of a movie.
She would never forget him saying in their first brief encounter, at a Poštová café table, “You’re lucky we’ve met.” He was walking by and stopping and turning to her and her friend, he began talking, asking their names, apologizing for the interruption, but saying he couldn’t help himself, he had to know if they would join him and his friend the next evening. They had just been saying how they wished they could treat two young ladies for dinner that next night! You’re lucky we’ve met, he said. Ana was taken aback, saying nothing at that precise moment, only turning her eyes across the table to Elena.
“Yes, how lucky,” she said, looking up and down his costume, the black pants, black shirt with extremely large, white collar, odd little black hat smashed over his bushy head of hair. He carried a circular broom and spooled cord over his bony shoulder and around his keel-like chest. He was a chimney sweep.
“Yes, we’re very lucky,” he said with a smile.
In the next minute he had arranged their first date, said goodbye, until tomorrow, and then gone, off to work, he said, leaving Ana and Elena, sitting at their table, Elena asking what had just happened. Ana explained it would be good for Elena, pretending even to herself that she had gone along with it to give Elena a chance to get out of the hospital and to have a life with men, but looking back so many months ago, Ana realized she had been charmed by the young chimney sweep.
They met the next evening. Peter and his friend had arrived first and secured a good table. As she approached the busy café Ana could see Peter looking sort of shy, as he watched and waited for her.
“Four lemonades, please,” Peter said to a young girl in charge of the tables. “Welcome,” he smiled, as the two men pulled chairs out for the women to sit.
For a moment no one said anything, they all just looked about; Peter, at the other tables and then the blue sky; Ana, at the pretty gilded façade of the café and the bright colored umbrellas above each table; Elena and Peter’s friend staring and smiling at each other. Then Ana looked at Peter. He was just a boy, charming, as she had thought the evening before, but not yet a man. She suspected not even twenty, appearing older in a way, but looking as if he hadn’t quite grown into his body. There was framework but not much else, the big bones of his shoulders in his jacket, like he had stored something under each sleeve, his narrow chest, and his knees that came up to the edge of the table. But his most distracting feature was his hair. She could not decide if it was distracting in a good way or not, only that it was in a strange way, beguiling. His arms were blanketed in shiny blackish brown hair and his chest under his shirt bulged with it coming up through his collar and onto his neck like moss on a tree. She decided she liked his beard and the hair on his head, which apparently, at least this evening, had been given some attention.
Ana liked his eyes most of all. When he stopped looking up to the sky, which was now darkening and becoming overcast, he caught her looking at them and he looked away again. They were piercing and penetrating, bluish-grey eyes, and she was caught up in them when he turned to her again.
“Is something the matter?” he asked, attempting to interpret a quizzical smile, “Do you not like lemonade?”
“You surprise me,” she said.
“Yes, how old are you?”
“I’m nineteen, twenty in June.”
“And how old do you think I am?”
“Maybe you are a mature twenty?” he said.
“No. I’m twenty-three. Didn’t you think we were too old for you, when you awkwardly came up to our table last night?”
“You’re not so old. I believe you are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.”
This made Ana blush and embarrassed and then offended, for being caused to blush.
“Am I too young for you?”
“Yes, I believe you are,” she said firmly, then looking pleadingly to Elena for confirmation.
Elena and Peter’s friend had still not said a word, only smiling at each other.
“Will someone else please say something?” Ana said.
“Bole only speaks Hungarian. He’s learned some Slovakian.”
“Elena only speaks Russian.”
“They seem to be getting along.”
“Yes, they do,” Ana laughed, telling Elena in Russian that Peter’s friend only spoke Hungarian.
Elena only halfway acknowledged Ana had even spoken.
“What do you do at the hospital, Ana?”
Peter’s eyes had rested on her neck and she covered it up with her hand.
“Elena and I are doctors from Moscow for a temporary visit.”
The lemonades arrived and they sipped them quietly without saying anything.
Then, it began to rain.
In a moment, heavy drops of warm rain pattered and tapped on the umbrella covering their table. A beautiful cascading waterfall flowed around them until the rain began pounding their protection. Seeing Ana get wet, Peter suggested they leave.
“It will stop,” she shouted, her heart beating in time with the rain.
“It won’t,” he shouted back.
Peter slammed down some coins and pulled the umbrella up and out of the table, “Let’s go!”
“Put it back down,” she gasped, looking around, her face and neck turning red.
“We’ll bring it back,” he laughed, “Let’s go!”
With a smile and a gesture, he offered his free hand, but she grabbed his arm, and walking on his toes, he pulled her along, scuttling down Poštová street. Ana glanced back at Elena and Bole. They were now completely drenched but still sitting, staring and smiling at each other, as the rain continued to pour.
Those first spring evenings with Peter became the longest, hottest summer nights in Czechoslovakia. Then autumn passed, as if it never existed, to a cold December morning when Ana had no choice but to return to Moscow.
Peter walked with her to the station.
“I will visit you,” he said, “for Easter.”
“Please, don’t. Let’s not go through that again.”
He ripped the watch off his wrist.
“Then I don’t want this!”
He tried to force it into her hand but she would not take it.
“Don’t pout like a child, Peter. It was a birthday gift. Can’t we just be happy about our time?”
“Stay,” he pleaded, “Bratislava is a beautiful place to begin a family.”
“Stop talking,” she said, unable to look at him, “You’re going to ruin my trip.”
Peter shoved the watch down his pocket and backed away. It hurt her to see him so devastated but Ana determined she would not say anything else, or feel anything else. She had been honest with him from the beginning, she told herself, and now she was leaving, that was that.
Feeling composed, she now looked at him and smiled.
“Goodbye, Peter,” she said, but he did not return a smile or step closer.
It was over then, she thought. He would find someone else and they would both be alright. She turned and stepped onto the train
Through her cabin window Ana could see him, standing in the same spot, still as a ghost. She waved as the heavy, burdened train groaned and slowly steamed forward, snaking around a corner and out of sight.
This was how she left him and now she was going back, aware that she certainly had felt something. But what was it? she thought. Guilt? For not letting herself feel at the station? For not loving him the way he loved her? She had loved him, hadn’t she? Such a confusion! No, the guilt came from the lying. But she had never lied. He knew nothing about Lida or her love for Communism. She never lied because he had never asked. And she could never bear to tell him, even make up something about her, some form of Lida, some fabricated story she could fit Lida into. Poor Peter, it was much too complicated for the boy.
When she saw him, which she knew she eventually would, she would explain that she was back, yes, but that it would never work between them. She would tell him that she had to focus every moment on the hospital. Yes, that would be the simplest way. And besides, she was coming back for Pandora, not Peter.
Peter Farkas had stood at the train station platform that day, wishing the train would break down, even praying it would. When it did not, he walked away and spent the next two weeks going to assignments. Day after day he cleaned his appointed chimneys, even taking on extra work, only stopping to rest five or six hours after walking back to his small and damp basement apartment with its one window, caked with mud and grime, then back to work, then the musty apartment, then more assignments, then the dingy hole of an apartment, and so on.
Christmas Eve came and Peter took a train to Poprád to visit his mother and his sisters. It was a five hour journey to the foot of the High Tatras, the coldest part of Slovakia. They had moved back there from Bratislava two years before, to live with his grandparents after Peter’s father died, but he stayed to continue his apprenticeship as a chimney sweep.
For the first two hours of the trip Peter tried forcing himself to sleep. When he eventually fell asleep he had bitter-sweet dreams of Ana and their time together, until at sunset, the train finally came to rest under the hard shadows of the frozen Carpathian Mountains.
Peter saw his sisters, waving and smiling from the snow-covered platform of Poprád station, bundled up in heavy coats and fur hats. As he stepped off the train they bombarded him with generous, warm hugs.
There were three sisters, Dominika, the oldest, DaLenka, the middle and most agreeable, and the baby, Draha, the eight-year old ‘priestess’. Peter loved all three but having Dominika as a sister, in spite of her being a year younger, was to him, like having a second mother. And Draha, the baby, as sweet and gentle as she was, being a devout Catholic and strict adherent to the additional beliefs of her mother and grandmother, she could not refrain from constantly voicing her spiritual judgment of any situation, especially in regard to Peter. DaLenka, seventeen, almost eighteen, in Peter’s mind, was simply a good listener and had the same sense of humor as he, something everyone else in the family seemed to lack, except occasionally Draha, in moments of weakness that she would quickly correct.
“How was your Advent, Peter?” Draha asked him.
He nodded, that it had been very good, and she looked at him, squinting and raising one eyebrow.
Interrupting her thoughts and pre-empting a lecture she would give Peter on missing Advent, she blurted out, “Oh, Peter, I dreamed about you last night. You were holding a snake, Peter, and you let it go. When you did, it shed its skin into your hands and slithered away. Then you turned into the tree outside our bedroom window. I’ll show you which one. I showed DaLenka and she agreed, it reminds us of you, except for the ice.”
“That’s nice, Draha. Yes, show me,” Peter said.
DaLenka nodded and smiled.
Peter bent down and handed Draha something light to carry on their crunchy, icy walk through the town from the station to his grandparent’s house, every crackling step echoing off walls of the city square buildings.
“Oh, and Peter, you missed it. We cleaned Babka’s whole house today!” said Draha.
From a high twilight sky large snowflakes fell as the travelers turned the quiet corner of a narrow cobbled street. They now faced the open area in front of the Church of St. Egidius. Its ancient bell tower, blanketed in glistening snow, began to chime.
“You couldn’t come early for Boska’s birthday?” Dominika said.
Boska was the name everyone in the family, everyone in that town, called Peter’s mother, except Draha, who still called her matka.
“It’s a busy week,” Peter replied.
“There were no earlier trains?” Dominika asked.
“Yes. But I still had packing,” he said.
“Most of which you could have done the night before, yes?”
Peter sighed and laughed, “It is good to see you, Dominika.”
Minutes later they were inside, emptying their arms of Peter’s things, breathing in the strong aroma of spicy soup and throwing off their coats. In the entryway Peter greeted Dedko, his mother’s father, and Babka, the grandmother.
Boska came from the other side of the house and stood staring at him.
“You are sad, Peter.” his mother said.
She cast a numinous expression that worried him.
“No,” he said solidly.
“You met someone.”
Peter didn’t reply but suddenly his heart jumped to his throat. The watch! He had forgotten to take it off! Casually he pulled a sleeve down over it, hoping he hadn’t drawn attention to it.
“What happened?” she asked.
When she asked this the three sisters now paid attention.
“There’s nothing, Boska,” Peter said.
Boska raised her eyebrows and cocked her head.
“I hope you got the pastry basket I sent,” Peter said quickly, thinking on his feet.
“Yes. It was a nice birthday.”
Boska said nothing else, but turned and walked to the kitchen.
That evening, for the Christmas Eve meal, steaming bowls Kapustnica, which included meat, cabbage, mushrooms, vegetables, and dried plumbs, were placed out at the long table, as well as trout and perch caught by Dedko from the River, a baked ham, pirohy dumplings, and potato salad. Dozens of honey cookies and vanilla cookies with apricot would be brought out for dessert.
Before the meal, Dedko offered a quiet prayer of blessing, and during the prayer Peter thought of Ana, wondering how her Christmas Eve was. Was she thinking of him? Was her family asking why she was sad, like his was? Was she sad? At all? Even a little? Did she not know how much he longed to make her his wife?
It had become very quiet but Dedko had not finished his prayer. Or had he? Peter opened his eyes a little and saw Boska looking at Dedko, clearing her throat, as if it would cause him to speak louder, but nothing changed. He was still praying, just barely audible. Peter closed his eyes again and thought of Ana.
Would she be going to Midnight Mass as his family always did on Christmas Eve?
They hadn’t talked much of God or the church but he knew she must be a godly woman because she never let him kiss the inside of her mouth. On three different dates, he asked her to open her mouth, but every time she would softly say his name and then, ‘no’. After the third denial, he still believed that she wanted him to kiss her that way but Peter reasoned that Ana Focşani Kornis-Iscărescu, which was her full name, must have had deep beliefs about that sort of thing.
Peter’s grandfather was still praying but it had become even quieter.
Dedko’s prayers were quiet because he was a quiet man. Babka, his wife, had a father who was quite opposite, being loud, obnoxious, and abusive, so she married the quietest boy she could find, a quiet shepherd of goats. Peter didn’t know his real name, only Dedko, which was the name one called any grandfather. He didn’t really know much of anything about Dedko, but he knew that he had been a shepherd until he sold his flock, except for a few goats he kept around the yard outside. Dedko now spent his days rising early in the morning to fish, occasionally selling them at midday in the market, enjoying life with the grandmother in their old age.
Peter nodded and grunted in agreement with Dedko’s prayers in hopes of speeding things along even though it was impossible to know when the appropriate times were to make the noises.
Just at that time Draha spoke up, “Dedko, we can’t hear you!” which caused Peter and DaLenka to snigger, and then Boska to scowl at them and clear her throat again. While all this happened, Dominika had been the only one to hear Dedko say ‘Amen’.
“Amen!” Dominika nearly shouted as everyone opened their eyes to see Dedko already eating.
After dinner, another prayer from Dedko was endured, followed immediately by Christmas songs. Midnight Mass was uneventful except that Peter had to carry Draha on the way home because, although she had fought to stay awake, she had fallen asleep in her first Midnight Mass within fifteen minutes.
Peter woke before dawn on Christmas morning to the smell of baked cookies and the whispers of fervent prayers in the next room. After thirty minutes Draha burst into his room, saying she knew he had been awake, chiding him for not joining her in her morning invocation. She then dragged him out to the tree that stood tall beside her bedroom window.
“See, Peter,” she said, demanding he look closer.
“I see the tree, Draha,” he said, wiping his eyes, yearning for a hot cup of coffee or a possible way back to bed.
“It’s tall and thin, like you, and it has shoulders like you. See?”
He looked up and down the long pine and could see why she thought of him. Peter felt its rough and steady trunk. It reminded him how much he loved the many trees surrounding Dedko’s home and the spruce on the edge of the property, and the multitudes of larch trees at the base of the mountains that crawled their way up to the peaks. As a boy he would hike through those trees, high in the hills and mountains, and stay gone the whole day.
Suddenly he wasn’t tired anymore. After a few more minutes studying the tree they went back inside where it was warm and for the rest of the morning Peter told Draha as many stories as he could think of about his childhood adventures in the mountains.
Peter spent the rest of the day avoiding Boska. He could tell she wanted to talk about Ana by the way she began talking to him through his sisters. Several times that day she entered a room conjuring up busy work and in the same way he found reasons to leave.
“Who was responsible for this? DaLenka, these windowsills!” she said, glancing quickly at Peter and then away, “Did you even touch them? Just a wipe would have done. You know, DaLenka, your brother has never cleaned with us on Christmas Eve. Always hiking up the hills when the rest of us…A mysterious boy, he was, in those hills. A mysterious boy as he is today.”
And slipping into the next room, Peter tended to the fireplace.
“Still so dusty,” Boska said, entering the room and eyeing Peter, simultaneously wiping imaginary dust from the bookshelf close to him, “Please do this again, Draha.”
In the evening, Peter finally felt he could relax when Boska and the sister’s attentions rested on dresses and other final preparations for the St. Stephen’s ball that would happen the next evening. The women worked well into the night to make sure everything was perfect to the finest detail, including the proper amount of arum inside their dance shoes, a technique women in that region had used for generations to attract the best possible male dance partners.
Peter’s dreams disturbed his sleep through the night.
Icy branches break and fall from the tree outside Draha’s window, shattering, then melting on a hot sidewalk in front of the cafe where he met Ana. He sees Draha and Ana sitting at one of the tables. ‘See? It is Peter’ Draha says, pointing for Ana to look up to the tree. Ana shakes her head ‘no’ and disappears. Now Peter is on the train to Moscow with Ana and Boska is there too. They are laughing and Peter is sure it is aimed at him. How do they know each other? he thinks, hot with insecurity.
He now cleans a chimney attached to the side of a cliff. He is in the mountains outside Dedko’s home and at the same time, high above Bratislava. Standing on the edge he looks down, worried about how he would get to his apartment from there. A wild goat leads him down a quiet trail and he feels at peace, until a sudden anxiousness comes over him.
Did Ana’s train make it to Russia? He watches himself digging feverishly through steamy wreckage, searching for Ana’s body.
Peter woke up in a sweat and his chest pounding but after a few moments he slowly fell back to a deeper, dreamless sleep.
On the morning of St. Stephen’s Day the entire house was up and moving! It was a day just as important as Christmas, especially for Dominika and DaLenka, for it was Delenka’s second St. Stephen’s Day ball and Dominika’s third, which made them part of the experienced crowd.
Peter looked among his things for a clean shirt and upon opening his suitcase he immediately felt something was not right. Hoping to avoid any questions from Boska, he had hidden away the birthday watch, stuffing it inside the suitcase in a secret pocket, wrapped in a handkerchief. Peter felt the pocket and there was no bulge. He unzipped it and it was confirmed, the watch was missing!
Frantic, Peter tore everything out of his suitcase and the other bag of clothing. He turned them upside down, looked under his bed, even under his pillow and blankets. Maybe he had moved it and forgotten? Had he hidden it again, but this time in the closet? Then, relieved, he spotted the handkerchief on the dresser next to the door and the watch was neatly wrapped inside.
Peter was furious! Tears welled up in his eyes and his voice quivered as he spoke.
“Boska,” he said, stomping his foot in the kitchen, “This is my watch, a gift to me, not for you to tamper with! What did you do?”
She said nothing and would not even look up from her mixing bowl.
“Now you can’t talk? Why did you have this and what foolishness did you do?”
All three sisters now entered the kitchen while the grandmother waddled out to the sitting room.
“It was for a love spell,” Dominika said in defense of her mother.
“You have no right to go through my things, Boska, behind me while I’m sleeping!”
“She loves you,” Boska said quietly, “I knew clearly when I touched it.”
She was telling the truth and Peter knew it.
Since she was a small girl, Boska, the witch, was known for her ability to touch any object and tell of its past and future and the past and futures of those who had touched those objects, their thoughts and emotions, and many times, their current whereabouts.
That explained the strange dream. While he was asleep she used the watch and cast a spell!
Boska said nothing more and the sisters looked at Peter, waiting to see what he would say.
He stormed out of the kitchen to his bedroom and began putting on warm clothes.
“Where are you going?”
It was DeLenka.
“I don’t know, just out. Maybe the mountains.”
“I’m coming with you.”
Peter led her through the snow, hiking up bright, sunny hills, over a river they were both familiar with, and through two small and cool shaded valleys that led to higher peaks, neither of them saying a word until he spoke.
“We should turn back? Your dance tonight.”
“No, it’s okay,” she said, making an expression Peter interpreted as calculation, “We can keep going for a while. I will still dance.”
Then they were silent again, climbing for another hour until DaLenka spoke, loudly so he could hear, since he had moved a distance ahead.
“This is Boska, Peter. This is how she is.”
Her voice echoed off the icy, steep climb beyond them.
“This is how she is,” she said again, louder, smiling.
“This is how she is!” Peter howled again and again.
Peter’s bellowing echoed through the mountains and mixed with their laughter as they climbed higher to his favorite peak. It was the one Dalenka remembered, the high point he had taken her to that previous March.
Around two in the afternoon they were back inside and the house was quiet. In his room they said nothing, but looked in a mirror, staring at their sunburns and laughing. Dominika and Draha walked in, also saying nothing, only watching the two of them laughing.
Peter had decided to forgive Boska but he wasn’t ready to talk to her about it. It wasn’t until evening when the sisters had gone to their ball and later, after Draha, Dedko, and the grandmother had gone to bed, that they were in the sitting room by the fire, alone for the first time that holiday.
“It wasn’t your right,” he said.
“To see you happy?” she replied.
They said nothing else for a while, both quietly reading; Boska, her favorite during the holidays, Hans Christian Andersen, and Peter, a childhood favorite, Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, in English.
“I was the Shepherdess and your father-”
“The chimney sweep, I know. You’ve said before.”
“And now you are the chimneysweep.”
This comment of chimney sweeps and the cold air from outside seeping through the seams of the windows next to them prompted Peter to address the need for another log on the fire. He stoked it appropriately and sat down.
“Yes. I am the chimney sweep,” he said.
“Not a shepherdess, a doctor. But she’s in Moscow now and is sure we are not meant for each other. Maybe she’s right. I am just a chimney sweep.”
“A doctor?” she asked, doubting.
“She tells you she is a doctor?”
“Yes. She is, Boska.”
“Well, Peter, you are more than a chimney sweep, more than even a charming young man,” she said, clearing her throat.
He didn’t want to hear about being charming or anything else Boska thought he was. Besides, she didn’t know everything about him, as much as she tried to act like she did. He forced himself to read and not to think of Ana or Boska. He came to the part of the story where Kim was dozing in and out and where the lama and the Curator spoke of the river and becoming free of the Wheel of Things. Peter himself was getting sleepy but then he remembered that he intended to tell Boska, somehow, that he knew she meant well and that he forgave her for using the watch for a love spell.
As he began to speak Boska put her hand toward him.
“She will come to you,” she said, referring to the spell she had cast.
“I know you believe it, Peter. You say it is foolish because that is what they teach you these days.”
“No. I am sorry I said foolish earlier. I shouldn’t have.”
There. He had done it. He had apologized. Boska’s pride would not allow her to acknowledge it but at least he had said it. They could talk more about it later but now he was tired and ready for bed.
“No,” she laughed, “I am a foolish woman. Foolish old Boska! But I know what I know. She is coming back to you, Peter, and when you were a boy, you were first a wolf.”
Peter knew he was very sleepy and probably no longer truly listening but he was sure of what he had just heard.
“A wolf? Boska, what? When a wolf? What do you mean?”
“You should know, I told your father, we should tell you, but he didn’t want you to know, ever.”
“That I’m a wolf,” he said, incensed.
“You were a wolf,” she said.
Peter wanted to unforgive her now, for being Boska, for saying strange things his entire life, for making him feel strange, with so many strange people who would visit his mother when he was small, to have her touch things owned by missing loved ones in order to find them, and for her casting spells and doing other magic.
She was Boska Juhász Farkas, the good witch, but still a witch, from a family of witches! Boska’s younger sister, Peter’s Aunt Astra, was known in the region as the girl who could become invisible. As a young child, Peter’s aunt would disappear and play tricks on friends and family members and one time, when she began puberty, she became invisible for an entire two years, going about the normal routine of life, except for during winter when she refused to go outside, then appearing again as a fully developed young woman. Two years after that, she disappeared again, only this time she had actually left home and began living in Cleveland, Ohio of the United States, working as a perfume clerk in a department store, according to a letter received by Boska the summer of 1935.
Throughout his life Peter had learned to tolerate being the son of Boska, managed living under the same roof as a witch, but when it affected him directly, like the time Peter’s primary school teacher became upset with him, for a spell Boska had cast on behalf of the teacher’s wife, he struggled to control his temper.
A wolf! A wolf! She could not expect him to believe it, and so casually, she says it, And when you were a boy, you were first a wolf! He couldn’t talk about it anymore. It would make him even angrier.
He jumped up, completely exasperated, and looked at her. But as he looked at this old woman with her looking back at him so patient and calm, Peter could only love her and forgive her again.
“Sit, Peter, please. I will tell you the full story and we will never speak of it again.”
Peter nodded and sat down, sweating from the blazing fire he had built.
“Your father’s ghost came to me for the first time this past Easter evening, after the sisters took you to the train. The truth about you has weighed heavy on my shoulders. I have wanted for so very long to tell you but I knew it was against his wishes so I could not. That is why he came, to tell me I should tell you, that he changed his mind, that you should know. And he asked me to forgive him for leaving us, and I told him he must release himself from guilt. Then he was gone. I knew then that I would tell you this Christmas.
“I felt even more sure, Peter, when I saw your face, when you arrived from the train two nights ago. You have found your mate, my son. No man has that face unless he is sad and desperately separated from his true mate. After this night we won’t talk of her again until the day I see her with you, here, next Easter. Don’t doubt it, Peter. I have seen it. It was when I took the watch that I saw this. She loves you and has been sick with sadness since she left you on that train. She will come back to Bratislava and find you. I have seen it.
“And now, about you,” she said, staring past Peter and out the window.
“As a young girl I became a fine shepherdess. Your Dedko could leave me with the goats and he knew they would be safe. We would go high in the mountains and I would protect them while they slept. I knew which mountain lakes to take them to and they were always safe with me because I prayed faithfully to Mary, to protect the goats the way she protected her lamb, the son of God, Jesus. The way Draha prays, that is the way I prayed, faithfully, day and night.
“I was very tired one night and began singing songs quietly to myself and praying. It was midnight. The moon was big and bright and out of the shadows before me came a wolf. But it wasn’t a hungry wolf. It was a calm, peaceful, kind wolf. He had been sent by Mary to protect the goats and me from the other bad wolves. After that, I saw him many nights. Alone in the mountains with the goats, I would sleep too because I knew he was there protecting us.
“Then I never saw him again, not the next summer, or the next. Never again until one night, the end of May, when your father and I were already married. Peter, your father and I were not having children. We tried many spells to conceive but we could not have a baby. Finally that night, I prayed one last prayer to Mary. I told her it would be my last prayer about it, because I was not going to stop praying until I knew she would provide a baby for us. So, I lit a candle and prayed for one hour but still wasn’t at peace. I lit another candle and praying again for another hour I still did not feel the peace I knew Mary would provide. The third candle lit, I prayed again another hour and at the end of that hour I knew Mary would provide for us the miracle baby we had been begging for.
“Later, I was asleep in bed, and in the middle of the night we heard a scratching on our door. I woke your father and we opened the door. It was the wolf from when I was a young girl! Your father was startled and ready to defend us but I told him that the wolf was sent by Mary, that it was a good wolf. So, we let the wolf inside and fed it soup and bread. Soon after, the wolf went into the side-room next to us and went to sleep on a blanket your grandmother had made. We closed its door and went back to bed.
“When I woke the next morning I remembered the wolf and hurried to see if it was still there. Opening the door to the side-room, there was no wolf, Peter, only a baby, sleeping quietly and peacefully. We knew at once that the power of God had turned that wolf into a baby and Mary had answered our prayers. Peter, she had turned you from a wolf into our baby boy! It was truly a miracle!”
Peter was paralyzed in his chair. He couldn’t say anything. He couldn’t even breathe.
Boska got up quietly, walked over to Peter, kissed him on the forehead, and went through the kitchen to her room and shut the door.
Peter sat for a long time, still stunned and sweating in the heat of the blazing fire. He would tell Delenka when they came from the dance. Would she already know about Boska’s wild tale? No, he thought, she would have told him.
Peter became very drowsy and fell in and out of sleep.
Wolf scratching. Boska chanting, holding the watch. Awake, fire dwindling. Asleep again. Warm thoughts of Ana. Looking down, high on a roof, working and twisting a chimney brush. The smell of tarry soot. Half-awake and the sisters are still out. He walks to bed, asleep.
The Saint, the Spy, the Witch, the Wolf
They climbed into the blue and grey bus and found their seats.
It was a seventeen hour journey to Kloster Fulauhagen in Bergensbüttel, Germany.
Draha looked out the window and watched the other passengers board, feeling herself suddenly so exhilarated she was nearly out of breath. She looked at Jana and her face told everything; she was scared. But Draha felt like she could fly, spreading her wings like the giant heron from the river, neck tucked in strong and sure, long legs stretched out behind, unafraid to finally soar. Funny how it was Jana’s idea in the first place to leave home before finishing Gymnasium, not even completing half of it. Jana wasn’t the one brought up half Catholic, half witch. She shouldn’t be the one most scared about moving to a Lutheran convent.
“This is it,” she said, reaching down to take Jana’s hand.
“Yes,” Jana replied, sucking air between her teeth, “Scary, but good, right?”
Draha nodded and squeezed her hand, “Our first best decision.”
Neither of them knew what else to say so they simply exchanged knowing smiles until long after the bus had departed when they both fell asleep.
Their families were in shock and disbelief when they had announced that in a month they were moving to Germany to become Lutheran nuns and only Dalenka had been there to watch them leave. None of Jana’s family would even consider seeing them off from the station. He still loves you, she had said to Jana, hoping to console her when her father claimed she would be disowned if she left. It was the leaving Gymnasium unfinished, Draha supposed, that distressed both families.
Since Draha was six years old, Boska had told people back in Poprád that if anyone would become the first woman Pope it would be her. But like Mother Theresa, Draha was not looking for any special position. She desired only to pray all day, spend her mornings thinking of the endless possibilities of God and her evenings writing about God’s infinite being. And this was fine with Boska, but only after Gymnasium and in a Catholic convent, not a Lutheran one.
Boska never even went to primary school, Draha puzzled in her mind over and over since the day she had made the announcement. How could she be so disappointed?
It didn’t matter what Draha thought or said, Boska wouldn’t hear a word.
At least Dalenka had cried about it. She would nod her head and say things like, ‘If you feel that strongly’ and ‘I trust you, baby sister’, and so on. However, the more she thought about it, it was not because she was leaving that Dalenka had cried, but that she hadn’t already taken that kind of step herself.
Draha knew early on that her goal in life was to become something she could only be after decades of patience. Like a boulder, worn down by the sea over ten thousand years, Draha did not expect to see the change but to feel it, gradually, to know it, firmly and surely, after many years of patience and faith, an evolution of change within her heart and mind. Becoming a Lutheran nun would only be part of it.
This philosophy of mind and soul became a solid plan at the age of twelve, some time just before her thirteenth birthday. After praying to God to show her the path she should go, one day it occurred to her that she was already on the path and had been since her earliest days of consciousness. She had no earlier memories than those of her kneeling and praying beside her bed at the age of three. She was that unmovable boulder set in place and God would be her ocean, wearing her down to the essential self, when in the million years ahead, she would become an anchor on shore, intimately attached to the ocean, lasting as long as the ocean or perhaps longer.
She was eternal and beyond the choice of right or wrong. There were no mistakes, only choices. Whatever choices she made, she made in view of eternity, which in turn for her, made the choice for her. And she reveled in it, the understanding that her choices had already been made.
She did not long for immortality, the way she understood most people did, who desired to prolong their physical lives and perceived immortality in that way. She did not desire it because she knew that she already had achieved it, an eternal life that existed before she was conceived and would extend for ages to come, as the rock does beside the ageless sea.
When she saw her peers in their times of puberty and her older sisters, struggling with physical transformation and the challenge of being comfortable in their own skin, she made a decision not to allow herself to be bound to that type of thinking. The physical body could be the egg, the larva, the pupa, or even the butterfly, it didn’t matter. Any physical change was a minor stage in the life of a soul, and nothing to depend on, nothing to define oneself by.
This was her overriding mantra throughout her teenage years, so much so that her thinking was always clear, not shaped and guided by things of reason and circumstance, in a misunderstood thinking of hopelessness, based on elementary rules of physical existence. When others found ways to define themselves she chose to wait, to live a life of waiting, before choosing to be defined. In fact, she understood that defining anything was the same as de-infinitizing something, taking away something’s mystery or infiniteness, and so she refused to accept any definition of herself by others or herself.
Draha was tiny like Boska’s mother and although she expected to grow taller it never happened. Secretly, she assumed the reason she never grew any taller than five-foot-two inches was because she prayed so often on her knees. She did not resent the connection, only wished she would have learned to pray on walks at an earlier age. When it seemed to her that her one to two hour prayer sessions in the morning could be stunting her growth she began taking prayer walks. Even in winter she would bundle up and go for a prayer walk, becoming sick more than once because of it and facing the wrath of Boska, who said that a person could ‘pray too much’, that it could ‘become detrimental to their health’. Draha would take Boska’s words under advisement but as soon as she was healthy again, she continued the prayer walks.
Draha prayed so often that more than half of her dreams included her praying. She would dream of being in school and the teacher asking her why she was praying in the middle of class. In the dream she would have to gather herself up from beside her desk where she had been kneeling and get back into her seat, amidst laughter from other students. And in her dream, she scolded herself for being prideful and disrespectful of the teacher. Waking up from such a dream, she would feel the guilt and shame of sin for being so disrespectful. So, on more than one occasion, even though she knew it was only a dream, she would get out of bed and pray until she was at peace. There were other dreams, where, in the most vague way, since she knew nothing of the subject, she had been caught kissing a boy, and again, waking, feeling extremely guilty, she would kneel down and struggle in prayer.
Although Draha had been known for praying hours a day, unwilling to say anything unwholesome when all other children her age began trying it, never saying a bad word against anyone, only telling the truth, unless it was incriminating of someone else, in which she would say, ‘It is not for me to say, you must ask them’, and even though she had never done anything remotely sexual with anyone, not even herself, she had a rather liberal taste in art and music, especially popular culture of the West.
The fascination began in the winter of 1969, when Boska and the grandparents moved her and her sisters to Austria. Thanks to her sisters and Jana Schneider, she had become familiar with the Beatles, the Doors, the Rolling Stones, and Elvis. She was able to see movies in Austria that she could never have seen in Czechoslovakia and she desperately loved them! Boska and the family joked that if you didn’t find her somewhere praying, she would either be in a record store or a theater.
The trip to Bergensbüttel was long and tiring. Neither of them slept for longer than a few hours and every time they woke they were very hungry. They brought food from home but it went quickly and the last time they were both awake they realized they had nothing left and the driver said it would be another three hours before the next stop.
Eternity passed and the bus stopped, yet the only thing available were pretzels from a vendor they found a few blocks away. When they finally had food in hand they had to run back quickly so they didn’t miss the bus when it took off again.
In another few hours they were in Wittengen, where they were told they would have to walk to the hospital to meet Sister Bettina, who would take them to Bergensbüttel. For one hour they waited in the hospital until a short, round, grey-haired woman walked in, smiling at the two of them.
“Good! Bring your bags,” Sister Bettina said, motioning for them to follow her. She turned around and was out the door before they had even picked up their belongings. Outside, she was waiting for them, in the driver’s seat of a tiny two-door aquamarine-colored sedan.
“Be quick!” she said, motioning to the open kofferraum. They put their luggage in the trunk next to several bags of groceries and got in.
“We’re already running late,” she said, pulling on to the road, turning west into a setting sun, “Just came from the grocer, and I’ll eat a broom if he’s ever ready with the list, so we’re in a big hurry now. Sometimes I think he’s as dumb as a goose! Can you drive a car?” she asked.
Draha shook her head.
“What isn’t still can be,” Sister Bettina replied, “Not too hard to learn. I’ll teach you so you can do this instead of me. How was your trip?”
“Very long, almost eighteen hours,” Jana answered.
“That’s for the cat!” Sister Bettina said, now driving in the opposite lane to pass a slow moving truck stacked high with bags of apples. “Tonight you’ll recover.”
Sister Bettina swerved back into the correct lane.
“Oh!” she said, as if she had forgotten something. “We have just enough time for a song or two.”
The stout little nun joyfully turned on the radio and it played a song Draha was familiar with, thanks to Jana. Staring over at Sister Bettina, seeing her mouth the words, Draha turned around to look at Jana. They were both very surprised to see a nun enjoying The Doors.
“You know he died,” Sister Bettina said, leaning over to Draha.
“No! Jim Morrison?” Jana said.
“Yes,” she nodded solemnly, “I was neck over head for him. Well, before I joined the abbey. My head is still smoking to think he ended it all.”
“Killed himself?” Jana asked.
Draha shook her head, “Why does it happen?”
“Who knows why the geese go barefoot,” Sister Bettina said.
Together they sang the rest of the song and it felt to Draha as if they were mourners at Jim Morrison’s funeral, laying the final wreath in song, and her heart became heavy.
Sleeping in a bed couldn’t come sooner, she thought. She would pray herself to sleep tonight, she decided, hoping her dreams would not reflect the way she felt at that moment.
At twilight they arrived. After meeting Abess Hilda and a few more of the sisters, they were quickly shown their rooms, where they were told they could relax and write or pray or sleep. Someone would be bringing them a meal and afterward they could go to bed or take a tour. Draha chose to sleep.
The next morning she woke up early. By her watch it was four in the morning but it felt earlier. Maybe there was a time difference, she wasn’t sure. The moon still shined through a high, small, ornately traced window and it shone down to the table and chair next to her bed as if God were calling her to it.
She sat down at the tiny desk and turned on the lamp. Looking around the room, which was more like a narrow closet than a bedroom, she turned the lamp off again to see if it had made any difference. It had, maybe, she thought, and she switched the lamp back on.
She tried to get comfortable as she situated herself at her new desk. Picking up the sheets of paper that had been there when she arrived she felt them. Putting them up to her face, they smelled fresh and she imagined the sisters making the writing paper in lower parts of the abbey or in a workshop somewhere close by. Looking around again, at the solid walls painted violet-grey, the tiny rust framed window, and the ancient tiled floor the color of dried leaves, she thought that maybe they had made paper in this very abbey centuries ago, using it specifically for hand-written copies of the scriptures before the printing press.
She decided to write a letter to Boska to let her know she had arrived safely and that she missed them. She included also, her first impressions of the abbey. As she finished the letter her stomach growled but she hadn’t prayed yet so she kneeled next to her bed. And an hour later she was famished.
Draha opened the door to the hall hoping it wouldn’t take long to find the kitchen. The moment she stepped out, another bedroom door opened. A tall, angular sister stood at the other bedroom door and smiled. She motioned for Draha to follow her as if she was reading Draha’s mind.
The kitchen was cold and quiet and dark with very little light coming from a lone lamp above them. Draha watched respectfully as the sister delicately pulled out two beautiful china cups from a tall cabinet, placing them on saucers on a ceramic tiled island between them.
“Would you like some tea?” the sister asked.
“Yes, please,” Draha answered, “And may I ask, when will we eat?”
“Are you hungry now?”
“I have some rolls and an apple if you like. I’m sister Letta, would you help me make breakfast this morning?”
After breakfast Abess Hilda introduced Draha and Jana to the sisters of Kloster Fulauhagen as new candidates.
Life in the abbey was much more difficult than Draha expected. It wasn’t the extremely early mornings, or the several hours of daily prayer, or even the days of fasting. These were an issue for Jana but not her. It was the everyday work the sisters were expected to do that surprised and challenged Draha so much.
The service of the sisters at Kloster Fulauhagen were in four areas: the museum, the church, the kloster, and the grounds.
Maintaining the museum included managing entrance fees, caring for the many art treasures and archived documents within the convent and church, and guiding the tour itself. The sisters responsible for the church maintained floral decorations in the vestibule, dusted daily the alter, the pulpit, an additional lectern, the baptismal, and the choir stalls. They also organized music for community services, maintained supplies for the Eucharist, and coordinated the many benevolent projects. Those responsible for duties within the kloster worked in the kitchen, providing daily meals for the sisters as well as the ones taken to the poor. They cleaned the common areas, scheduled and oversaw the daily prayers and bible studies, and planned the special retreats offered throughout the year. Grounds duty included the shrubbery, lawns, and two gardens, one of flowers and plants and the other of fruit and vegetables.
Abbess Hilda assigned Draha and Jana to three weeks in each area of service, after which it would be decided where they were best suited.
Although the workload was overwhelming at times, with each rotation Draha felt she found her niche. First, it was the grounds, where she learned to prepare the strawberry patch for winter and how to prune the rose bushes and crape myrtles. Jana, on the other hand, started with the museum, of which she complained every day. ‘Who cares about five hundred year old papers, anyway!’
Then it was the church, where Draha learned to arrange flowers and had the pleasure of dusting the sanctuary, where she could admire the carved and painted alters and study the many wall paintings depicting the stories she loved so much. Jana’s next assignment was the kloster where she said she was learning to hate cooking because of the intense schedule required to feed all the sisters three times a day and the additional meals provided to the poor and needy.
The next two trials continued much in the same way, until at the end of their twelve-week tour of duties, Jana confessed, in tears, that she would be leaving the convent the very next day.
She had to, Jana said. There was nothing more the sisters could offer. Draha told her she understood and that she would miss her and she expected to receive letters whenever Jana arrived at her destination.
Then Jana was gone.
It was the middle of the second week, after her afternoon gardening duties, that Draha began driving lessons with Sister Betina.
“I’d rather watch a little while more,” Draha said, fidgeting in the passenger seat.
“You’d rather go somewhere and pray about it, Candidate Draha,” Sister Betina said patiently, “I know you. Now, the first step is always the hardest.”
Suddenly, she jump out of the driver’s side and Draha watched her run around to her side. With the heft of her round, elastic hip Sister Betina bounced Draha over to the driver’s side. “It’s time to grasp the nettle and get started!” she said, taking Draha’s hands and placing them on the steering wheel.
This is how she began her lessons with Sister Betina and every other day she practiced until one day, Sister Betina had her drive all the way to Wittengen to pick up the weekly groceries.
When they entered the grocer’s shop, several bags were already sitting on the counter.
“These could not be ours,” Sister Betina said, dumbfounded.
“They certainly are. All ready!” the old grocer said, stacking canned goods high on a shelf and with his back to Sister Betina.
“Don’t try to tie a bear on me,” Sister Betina replied, “You’re never ready.”
“We are today. Do you want me to have Siddarth check to make sure it is correct so you can wait longer?”
“My new employee, Siddarth,” the old grocer said, turning around, smiling proudly.
He motioned for the young man to step forward and introduce himself.
“Well, I’ll eat a broom,” Sister Betina said.
The young man extended his hand to Sister Betina.
“Siddarth, the pleasure’s mine,” the young man said in his best German.
“Well, that explains it. No complaints here,” Sister Betina said, “I am Sister Betina and this is Candidate Draha.”
Draha had not expected to be introduced so instead of placing her hand out to shake his, she awkwardly put her hand out with a limp wrist, as if she expected it to be kissed. When Draha saw the confused look on the young man’s face she understood what she had done.
“I’m so very sorry,” she said, blushing, straightening her hand, “So nice to meet you.”
He gently took her hand and held it, continuing to smile at her even after she pulled her hand away, once again, in awkward fashion.
“He’s just from London,” the old grocer said.