I didn’t see her. She couldn’t have existed if I were there. We reside in different worlds; different times of place. And so it is with careful—hesitant lest I misrepresent—words that I tell you of her. She is small, only child-size, but her mind is opening quickly. You must be careful with these kinds of children who grow quicker than their years. For they are touching glass-pointed ideas when their skin is as thin as an eggshell and just as fragile. Many would be inclined to pity them, and perhaps this is right. But they can also be envied, for in those early taken steps they may learn more than you or I might in all our years of walking.
There are giants’ seats lining the walls of this Orthodox Church. The smooth dark wooden armrests are above average shoulder height, although the seats are low enough to sit comfortably on. A carved cross hole allows you to peer at a cross shaped bit of your neighbor’s hair. But when she was here there was no one sitting next to her. These chairs are for the elderly, or perhaps the very smallest of children who cannot yet stand for themselves. In an Orthodox Church the congregation stands. But she does not know this because this is the first time she’s been in an Orthodox Church and there is no congregation here now.
I would tell you her name, but she did not leave that behind for us. It is the solemn right of wind and rain to weather away the names on tombstones, placed there on pedestals as witnesses to our vanity. Why do we long to be remembered by others in death but keep most of ourselves to ourselves in life? If anyone truly finds the answer to that he will surely know the answers to a thousand other questions. But I digress. This girl of whom I write will go down with most of us as the ordinary ones; those who did not achieve anything worth remembering beyond the grave. In fact, she likely never had a tombstone. She was a Jew and she was here not so very long in the past when Jews were despised openly, instead of just behind closed doors. Or at least people feared what might happen if they were kind to a Jew, so they just minded their own business and stuck to themselves.
You might be wondering why this little Jewish girl is in an Orthodox church. I’ve wondered the same thing and I will tell you my answers to that question if you tell me yours.
It could be the weather. It is intensely hot. Intense like the purest red oil paint layered upon itself until there is nothing but thick, strong, condensed red. The kind of heat that makes you want to hold your breath and fall into the fountain in the city square even though you would never do such a thing. The kind of heat that makes your feet rush, even though it is exhausting, just to find a place indoors, in a dark, cool basement where the sun will stop singeing your flesh and the air will not be as hot as the blood in your lungs. So maybe it was the heat that drove her in through the unlocked doors into the shadowy cool of the sanctuary. I suspect this might be the case because her forehead and the backs of her arms are burnt bright red.
I guess that she is hungry, because her limbs are not thick enough and there is that look in her eyes and a clenching in her bony fingers. I suspect that she has just been begging outside from the worshipers coming into the church. It is a common enough practice. Even when I came in there was a man begging. He was wearing a blue coat, even though it is hot, and there was a broken, forgotten look in his eyes. I had been told not to give anything to the beggars or to engage them in any way, which is why I cannot remember much else about the man, except for my strong feeling of pity and self-loathing at the site of him. I live in a comfortable home surrounded by people who love me. He lives on hard, dusty stone surrounded by religious people with no love and few coins to share.
I do not think she came in here for food, though. There was no food being given out. It was probably more from despair of ever receiving enough coins for food and longing to be in a moment again where she didn’t have to think about food and about how much she needs it. You have to have those moments of forgetfulness to grow up fast as a child. Otherwise you become little more than an animal, driven by your stomach.
I’m sure there are other reasons why she came in here. She would have gone to the synagogue, but that was a great many blocks away, especially for her little blistered feet and in this kind of heat. Besides, it was closed down and barred off and there would be no one there to help her. Not that she expected help going into the Orthodox Church. In fact, I think she expected nothing at all.
What she found were elaborate paintings, all framed in gold; panel after panel in the front, on the sides above the giants’ chairs and canopying over her on the ceiling. Beautiful, smooth skinned people stared down at her or gazed upward in worshipful reverence. How could one worship with all those people around? she must have wondered.
In her synagogue, there are no people on the walls or in the windows. Instead there are bright and cheerful expanses of summer green, tantalizing orange and perfect sky blue. And there are lovely leafy, feathery patterns that rise like vines over a trellis up the sides of the domed roof. I know this because I visited her synagogue. I doubt it looked much different now than it did then, except that the paint is probably more chipped now. When I was there, just a few hours ago, broken, dust covered pews were piled in the back and a brave lattice climbed the outside walls—the main evidence that repair was finally beginning. Many of the shell-shaped stain glass windows were boarded up and there was old pigeon poop in the stairwell to the balcony although I don’t think pigeons live there now.
So all these people on the walls must have seemed very strange to her. All these graven images, she might have thought. In her synagogue, there were only words. Precious words pacing the ceiling in strong script. But the people were very beautiful here and they did not yell at her or kick her out of the way in their hurry. In fact, they were absolutely still and absolutely silent. From those engaged in violent bible scenes above, to the ones in the windows who were made not of paint but of glass—all were still and silent. Their mouths were sealed, and the book that one of them held was open to a page that only he could see.
She probably recognized some of the scenes painted on the ceiling; Adam and Eve in the garden, doing what they shouldn’t have, Daniel in a den full of calm lions, Abraham holding inscribed stones with a mountain behind him. She probably would have even known who the man on the cross was; I don’t think she was entirely uneducated. Little girls like her have spent their early years where they are nurtured before the street engulfs them. Likely she had a very good home once.
As she sat there, the cool and the quiet and her exhaustion from the heat lured her into sleep. I would like to sleep, too, and I envy her. I don’t know how long she slept, her dark curly head resting against the smooth wood of the giant armrest. People came and went as she slept.
A young woman enters alone. Her faded blue shirt is sloppily slung about her and her hair has not been brushed. She whispers her prayers and departs unchanged. Back to her world of empty relationships and hopeless repetition. Now look—there is a couple entering. They are so old that their wrinkles hold the shadows. The woman is smiling. The man is stern. His hand shakes gently as he drops his coins inside.
He woke her; the man in the robes who is answering a tourist’s questions quietly in the entranceway now, when I am here. He seems a nice man, with a kind open face. But we are all human, and when he spotted the little beggar dirtying the wood she sat on and noticed her curly dark hair, the olive tint to her skin and the slight difference in her dress, he jumped to conclusions that in this case were correct. I don’t think he would have said the nasty things he woke her with if a wealthy patron hadn’t been watching with disdainful eyes from across the sanctuary.
I did not hear his words to her. But whatever he said, it brought tears to her eyes and she left without a word.
But she did have a thought before she left. A couple of thoughts, not really coherent… more like a feeling, I’m sure. It is risky for me to try to put it into words, because I’m sure it will lose much of its power and nuance. But it was something like the following.
Don’t we all claim to serve the same God? Isn’t this place called a sanctuary? Why must I leave, then?
You see, it is more often questions that those children who grow up quickly find. And sometimes there is more wisdom in questions than in answers. I would like to think so at least, because I don’t have any answers. And I don’t have any more words. That is all I know about the girl.