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JANUARY 22, 1975
MONASTERY OF THE HOLY MARTYRS, LENINGRAD, U.S.S.R.
YURI TUCKED HIS chin under his coat collar, trying to ward off the stabbing wind that gusted across the frozen Neva River. The street slithered with white rivulets of snow as Yuri and his young daughter stepped around an old man struggling to shovel a narrow pathway up the monastery steps. Fat snowflakes churning in the raw evening wind accumulated faster than the old man could scoop them away with his one good arm. A pinned-over coat sleeve covered the stump of his other arm. A row of ribbons and war medals hung from his chest.
As Yuri and his daughter approached, the man paused, squinted against an icy gust and leaned on the broken end of his shovel. "The monks have bread for the hungry," he said, then bent over again and scraped his flat, rusted spade over the hard-packed ice that covered the path.
Yuri and Tanya moved up the steps and arrived at a pair of locked, cedar-plank doors. Yuri pounded the wood with a leathergloved hand. A few moments later, the door creaked open, exposing bone-thin fingers that held a thick chunk of brown bread.
"We are not here for food," Yuri said.
A voice wafted from behind the door. "Then why do you come here?"
"I bring the girl. She has the gift."
"The gift of the Pravda legend." Yuri waited for a response.
The thin fingers unfurled and the brown bread tumbled to the floor. The monastery door moved, widening the gap between it and the jamb.
Yuri and his young daughter stepped inside. A gray-bearded priest wearing a brown floor-length cassock, a black Byzantine klobuk perched upon his head, watched them with sunken eyes. A large, ornate, silver cross dangled from his neck. He lifted a flickering paraffin lamp and bowed in silent greeting. He then turned and pushed the heavy door shut against the invading blast of cold, and latched it with a large sliding bolt.
"I am sorry, but I usually tend to the welfare of men's souls not the digging up of their bodies, as we are about to do." His words flowed over blue lips and lingered in a vaporous mist.
Yuri had no desire for small talk. "We must hurry. The KGB is looking for the girl. We must conduct our business and leave quickly. I will take the girl across the border to Finland and escape the madness of this vile government."
The priest nodded, then waved for them to follow in the flickering glow of his light.
Two rats nibbled at the fallen chunk of bread on the floor, unconcerned as the priest limped past. Yuri and Tanya followed the priest's lamplight and descended a steep set of stone stairs. The cold seemed to follow, pushing from behind.
At the bottom of the stairs was an arched stone chamber, its floor covered in a thin veneer of frozen scum that crackled with each footfall. Green water dripped from the ceiling.
The priest pointed to a dark corner, where a large gray granite sarcophagus rested.
Yuri felt Tanya pull his coat sleeve as she released a muffled sob from under her woolen neck scarf. Chiseled on the face of the crypt, in old Russian Cyrillic, was the moss-encrusted name of Feodor Kuzmich, with the date of 1864 carved below.
A monk, head bowed and hooded canopy shielding his face, stood on each side of the stone coffin, murmuring somnolent prayers.
The old priest bent to the girl. "You are the awaited one of the legend...the girl with the Pravda." His lamplight reflected in her small, troubled eyes. Tanya took a step back and brushed away a tear. The old cleric spoke slowly, his lips slipping over tarnished brown teeth. "The man entombed here has a message for you."
Yuri stared at the smooth granite casket. "I bring my daughter at the request of my wife, Natalia."
"Where is your wife?" the priest asked.
"She has died. Three weeks ago."
The priest closed his eyes in a moment of reverent reflection. "You have done well to bring her." Placing his hand upon Tanya's black hair, the priest asked, "So it is true? I must know for certain. You can hear when a voice speaks an untruth? Do you truly have the Pravda?"
Tanya looked at her father, whose eyes relayed his approval. She then turned back to the priest, and nodded.
The priest sighed. "At long last the legend breathes."
Yuri asked, "How did you know that the girl and I would come?"
"Your wife knew the legend. It tells of a girl born with the Pravda a girl who should be brought here and given a message from the tomb."
"My wife would have brought the girl, but she was gravely ill for some time." The memory of his wife's passing drove a hot blade through Yuri's heart.
The priest gave a comforting smile. "Do not mourn. She awaits your arrival in Heaven, and Heaven is never far away. Her ears will be able to hear, and her lips able to speak words of love for you." He returned his attention to the girl. "It is a mystery why your daughter was born with the Pravda gift when her mother lived her entire life stone deaf."
Yuri studied the priest for a moment, long enough to remember the day his wife told him that when their daughter was old enough, they would visit the monastery. That was seven years ago. At the time Yuri hadn't understood his wife's words. Now he did.
The old priest clapped his weathered hands. The two monks standing by the stone coffin stepped forward, and, in unison, curled their fingers under the edge of the stone lid. They slid it slightly to one side. The scraping sound broke the chamber's silence. The lid refused to move easily. With a few more muscle-straining pushes, the heavy slab scooted a few more inches.
The priest turned his wizened face to the girl. "Remember this night well, child. Remember the legend. There is no secret in this world that time and Heaven does not unlock."
Stepping to the sarcophagus, he held the glowing paraffin lamp over the narrow gap between the grave's lid and stone side, and peered into the coffin's cavity.
Yuri moved to the priest's side and craned his neck to see what lay within. He saw a skull topped with a coarse, tangled tuft of gray hair. The tomb's occupant stared back with black, empty sockets. The skull had no jaw. His head, a stub of a spine, and a pair of arms was all Yuri could see. A full-length peasant chemise blackened with aged fungus covered the skeleton. In the naked bones of the right hand rested an old, golden snuff box.
The priest pulled back the sleeve of his cassock, then slid his arm through the space between the lid and side of the sarcophagus, until his searching fingers found the golden object. It was fused to brown, curdled skin. He pulled again and the relic came free, the connected dry sinew disintegrating into gritty granules. The priest drew the box slowly from the coffin and held it close to his light for a moment. Despite a layer of dust, it glinted in the light. He held it out to Tanya.
Tanya looked at Yuri. He nodded. Her hands trembled as she took the box. "What is it?"
The priest spoke softly, as if muttering a prayer. "It is a snuff box, child a gold snuff box. Inside is a message from long ago a message for you."
"Message?" Yuri asked.
"Yes, a message and a small glass vial of bread from Heaven the manna of God."
Yuri took the box and examined it. It was heavier than he expected and ornately crafted. Delicate filigree edged the golden lid and a double-headed eagle decorated the middle: the imperial seal of the royal Romanov family.
"What's a snuff box?" Tanya asked. She looked confused and frightened.
The priest explained. "Long ago, men ground tobacco into powder. The wealthy kept their powder in a golden snuff box."
Yuri gazed at the box resting in his gloved hand, his mind whirling with questions. "Who is the man in the grave? What does he have to do with us?"
The priest stepped away from the sarcophagus. "He once lived as a czar, his soul lost to the wind, but he died a monk saved by the cross of Jesus."
"The czar?" Yuri said. The words drained him of strength.
A loud pounding on the upstairs vestibule door rumbled down the stone steps. They froze in silence; the only sound Yuri could hear was the gulping breaths of his daughter.
They heard more pounding, followed by a muffled, harsh voice. "KGB. Open the door, priest."
The priest's forehead creased. He motioned for the two attending monks to go up the stairs and tend to the visitor. As they turned to go, the priest spoke in a reassuring tone. "In Christ, to die is gain." The hooded monks nodded, but said nothing. Their dark forms ascended the stone steps.
The priest turned to Yuri. "Bring the girl."
Without waiting for a reply, the priest turned and started down a narrow, low-arched tunnel that snaked into darkness. He was old and bent over, but he moved with urgency. The passageway's floor and walls felt slick. Yuri assumed the tunnel also served as drainage for the wet tomb. He gripped Tanya's hand.
Light from the priest's lantern reflected eerily off stone cavities cut in the walls. Stacked skeletons in various stages of decomposition plugged each cavity. A sour, pungent odor hung in the air. Yuri saw Tanya pulled her scarf over her face to keep from retching.
After a minute of shuffling and slipping in the icy maze of darkness, they reached the end. Yuri saw the faint blue hue of falling snow through the tunnel's exterior opening. A moment later, they stood in the monastery's courtyard.
The priest gulped for air more from exertion, Yuri assumed, than fear. The old man pointed to a dark clump of trees at the edge of the courtyard. "The evil one comes to take the child, so run; run with Godspeed."
Yuri led Tanya by the hand and had made fifty trudging strides in the snow when he heard a shot split the howling wind. Yuri turned and caught sight of a flashlight beam scanning the courtyard. The beam silhouetted the old priest as he held out his arms in a desperate attempt to stop the man's advance. The man easily shoved the old cleric aside, his frail form crumpling to the snow.
Yuri heard the crack of another gunshot, and something whistled past his ear. He began to turn when another gun blast parted the cold air, and a searing pain knifed through his leg. He collapsed into the snow. Warm blood seeped from his thigh and wafted steam, visible in the flashlight beam that fell upon his body. The gold box lay in the snow by Yuri's side. Tanya sank to her knees next to her father and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. He heard sobbing.
Yuri waited. He waited for the bullet that would strike him in the heart or in the head. More than anything he wanted to tell Tanya to run, to flee into the dark forest and hide from the monster with the flashlight and gun, but he knew she would never make more than a few meters before the KGB man caught her or shot her.
As he raised a hand to shield his eyes from the light, he saw the glint of the man's smile and his silver teeth. A second later he heard a thud. The beam from the flashlight jerked to the side and dropped to the snow. The man standing over Yuri and Tanya had released the light. A half-second later, Yuri watched his pursuer fall face down, still clutching the gun in his hand. The man fell on the flashlight; its beam now shone upward.
Yuri saw a wide flap of pink scalp hanging from the back of the man's stump of a head. Thick blood matted his greasy hair.
Yuri turned his gaze to the one-armed man they had passed when entering the monastery. He held the same shovel, now caked with red snow. The caretaker's chest heaved from the shock and effort of his actions, making the medals on his chest clink like chimes. As he gazed upon the still form below him, he said, "The way of the wicked is death."
He then let the shovel slip from his hand and helped Yuri to his feet. The pain from the wound raced up Yuri's leg and into his back, as if someone had set fire to every nerve. Despite the support of the one-armed man, Yuri winced and swayed.
Yuri forced himself to speak. "We owe you a great debt of thanks. Thank you."
"My name is Sergey."
"The old priest? How is he?"
A voice came from the darkness. "I do not believe I am dead just yet." The priest hobbled through the snow to Sergey and patted his back. "One good arm from a righteous man can triumph over an army of two-armed men allied with the devil."
Yuri looked at the KGB man lying in the snow and wondered if he was dead or just unconscious. Yuri decided he did not care. All he wanted was to get his daughter away from this place.
"I fear more KGB will come soon," the priest said. "Sergey, take this man to the abbey; he is unable to travel very far. The monks there will tend to his wounds. As for the girl, she needs to be taken far from here. If the KGB knows of her gift, they will take her away, and God only knows what will happen then."
"Papa, what is happening?"
Yuri struggled to maintain his balance. "I am trying to understand that myself, Tanya." The snow below Yuri was slushy with dark blood. "You must go with the priest, Tanya. He will know what to do."
"I don't want to go, Papa. I want to stay with you."
A new pain coursed through Yuri, not from a wound to the body, but one to the heart. "Tanya, you are in danger. You must go with the priest."
"But Papa "
"No arguments. You will do as I say."
"Yes, Papa." She lowered her head. He could hear her broken heart with every breath she took.
He pulled her close and ran a hand over her dark hair. "You are all I have left. I see your mother in every twinkle of your eye, hear her in every giggle. I...must do everything I can to make certain you are safe."
She turned her face up. Tears had left moist tracks on her cheeks. "When will I see you again?"
"We will see each other again. I don't know how long. However long it is, know this: our time apart can only make my love for you grow. Be strong, little one. Be wise. Will you do that, little one?" Yuri asked.
"Yes, Papa. I will."
Despite the pain, Yuri lowered himself and kissed his daughter on the top of her head. He prayed it would not be the last time he did so.
Yuri, with the help of the caretaker, limped down a nearby path. He glanced over his shoulder and saw his daughter trailing behind the priest. A stinging gust of ice particles swirled around them, and Tanya wrapped her scarf about her face.
The trail of their steps parted in the dark woods.
© 2009 by Robert Cornuke with Alton Gansky