At the edge of the treeline of the forest that he had kept on his right while walking from the railway Grigoriev’s eyes detected movement. He turned for a better view, looked across the snow to the trees. An elk raised its antlered head and stared back at him before retreating, slowly, into their midst.
Grigoriev walked back to the cathedral, sensing, as he did so, the sun sinking behind his back.
Later, as he slept, Grigoriev dreamed of the elk he had seen: that he was riding on its back… through the forest… holding its huge antlers, that rose and curved like branches, in his fists. In various glades people he had encountered but had not seen for years – among them a teacher from his schooldays, a cousin with whom he had danced at a wedding, a uniformed attendant who had once sold him a ticket for the Metro, and an elderly woman whose creased face he remembered from behind a chained door – emerged from the trees to pat the elk’s side and feel its snorts of warm breath.
After this they stepped backwards into the velvet darkness of the forest. Eventually, the elk returned him to the cathedral (from where it had first roused him by knocking with its antlers on the door).
In the morning, Grigoriev set to work early. He took the thin mattress from his bed and, on the wooden slats beneath, unrolled the sheets of paper on which he had recorded the shapes of the lost and broken panes. On these he next placed the glass panels he had brought with him on the sled: rectangular sheets of yellow, green, blue and red. Then, kneeling at the bedframe, he began to trace the outlines of the panes with his cutter, all the while watching the revolutions of the cutter’s little, oiled wheel. Griogriev angled his head to the glass, the spectacles he wore for the task frequently steaming.
As with the previous day, the priest arrived. Grigoriev heard him praying and moving about in the cathedral. His spiritual duties done, the priest entered the vestry. He looked in a chest, leafed through a ledger, whispered to himself and walked out – without, so it seemed to Grigoriev, even registering that he, Grigoriev, was there. After grozing the edges of the new panes with an iron, and stacking them, Grigoriev made tea and ate two cubes of sugar. He felt colder than the previous day and wondered if, in the night, he had caught a chill.
Momentarily, he remembered his dream-ride through the forest on the elk’s back. He considered going outside, but, observing the greyness of the sky through the high vestry window, he thought the better of it, and he continued with his work.
Cross-checking with the notes he had made, Grigoriev prepared his brushes, solutions and paints. He then set about illustrating the newly-cut pieces with the features they required: occasionally some missing element of a tree, hill or lamb, but, for the most part, fingers, eyes, feet and ears – carefully stroking-in the pigments, and to-ing and fro-ing between the bedframe and the windows to ensure the worthiness of those matches he intended to make.
During one such inspection he saw from his ladder – through a hole in a ruby cloak – that it was snowing outside, and thickly: the forest beyond the cathedral barely visible for the falling flakes and the failing light.
In the vestry Grigoriev stoked the fire in the stove and added more wood, whilst noting how the supply of logs against the wall had dwindled. He used the stove as his kiln, wedging inside its upper half a steel tray on which, in batches, he set his painted panes to glaze in the stove’s heat.
Any sense of time that Grigoriev may still have had now deserted him as he waited for each fresh batch to harden, then cool. Initially, he heard the snowflakes falling against the vestry window: the sound of their tiny, silting clasp. In time, this stopped as the window was smothered: a white cloak of snow steadily covering the casement from the bottom to the top. The cathedral became cocooned, Grigoriev inside it, great dunes of snow drifting against its door and walls. All the while the stained glass consumed him.
He heard nothing but the determined, low grind of his cutter and an occasional heavy spark in the stove. He surrendered himself to the glass utterly: the hairs of his eyebrows and beard virtually entwining with those of his precisely stroking brush.
The last pane Grigoriev painted was for the eye of Saint Andrey through whose socket he had seen the priest disappear (though Grigoriev struggled now to make sense of when The morning of the next day brought with it a cobweb of frost that spread itself over Grigoriev as he lay on his couch: the web’s latticework of silver strands encasing him from the hat on his head to the soles of his thickly-socked feet.
In time, Grigoriev heard voices in the cathedral, and he sat-up in his clinging filaments of frost. The priest’s voice he quickly recognised. What surprised Grigoriev, however, were the voices of others, responding, and at times singing, in what he realised to be a mass of the kind to which his mother had taken him in their home village when he was very young.
Stepping from the vestry, Grigoriev saw that, as well as the priest, who was ministering at the altar, the cathedral was almost full. Not with people as he knew them in the city, but of the kind who had once lived in that district: sawyers, farmers, farriers, peasant women, itinerants… all standing for the mass, in their jerkins, their coarse clothes, rude boots, hats and headscarves.
Grigoriev walked through the congregants now, carrying his pieces of glass. He did this as if these were no longer mere products of his toil, but something more: offertories of a kind, in fact. He fixed the new panes in the ‘wounded’ windows. As he did so, he had the curious sensation that, with every pane he cemented, a part of him seemed to be lost. It was as if he, Grigoriev, were diminishing… with every gap that he glazed. So much so that, at the completion of his labours, Grigoriev felt no more substantial than the ashes in the bottom of the vestry’s potbelly stove – those cinders, so he thought, resembling in their way Krasyansk and so many other lonely, ghostly, gone-to-seed places from which the young had fled seldom (if ever) to return unless for some reason summoned back.
When the mass ended the departed of the village departed once more, filing through the cathedral’s arched doorway and into the wide, white plain. In its depths they became dots, like birds in a pale, bloodless sky, and then they disappeared.
One who’d been present, however, remained… and will always remain: body and, possibly, soul… trapped… if you will, like an insect in amber.
If by any chance, when travelling, you should ever find yourself in the small black-domed cathedral of the remote village of Krasyansk have a care to study for a while its well-preserved stained glass.
In a particular, mid-winter light, you may be surprised by what you see… in those colourful, leaded panes.