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Fiction (April 2018)

The Glass by Matthew G. Rees

It was late in the year and the days were short and the snow was already thick on the land when Grigor Grigoriev arrived in the remote village of Krasyansk to repair the stained glass windows of its small cathedral.

No one met him at the railway halt: the locomotive resting there, in the immense whiteness, gasping like some breathless beast, before re-gathering itself and dragging its dark tail of carriages on.

Under the icicled canopy of the shack that passed for the station house Grigoriev found a sled angled on its runners against a corrugated iron wall. On this he placed his materials and his tools. He drew the sled’s leather reins around him and pulled down his hat so that it was low on his brow. He then began to hale the sled over the plain of snow that stretched before him, the horizon all but indecipherable beneath a sky that seemed to darken with his every stride.

Krasyansk, it should be said, is no longer really a village. For some time it has been a scattered, depleted settlement at best: home to no more than a handful of loggers, farmers, rail workers and their families. Occasionally, as he walked, Grigoriev passed their houses, lit weakly by oil lamps and generators, recessed amid the birches and pines.

After almost an hour of walking and pulling the sled Grigoriev came upon the cathedral, silhouetted on a slight rise, beyond it an expanse of dense, black firs. He stopped and let the reins fall. For several moments he rested his gloved hands on his hips and breathed-in the cold, clear air. In the near-darkness he then skirted the walls of the cathedral until he came to its door.

Inside the cathedral its gold-painted murals and icons shone dully in the gloom. Grigoriev stared for a moment at a huge haloed head he took to be that of Christ. Although by no means devout, he dropped to one knee and crossed himself. With the light of his phone, which he realised in all other respects would be useless (given the isolation of the village), he found his way to the vestry. There, on a small chest, he lit a candle. Having done so, he saw the stove, the wood that was its fuel and, against a wall, the couch that would be his bed.

Grigoriev laid a fire in the stove and lit it. Then he went back outside to the sled. For several minutes he stood looking at the stars, more aware now of the land and the sky than he had been when hauling the sled. In particular, his eyes and mind dwelt on the moon: it occurred to him that he could not remember when, in the city, he had seen it last. The smell of wood-smoke from the stove distracted him, and he set about unpacking the sled.

Having taken all of his things inside, Grigoriev stood over the stove in the candle-lit vestry. He did this so that his face and head might feel the benefit of its heat. During the walk from the railway lumps of ice had amassed in his beard and his eyebrows. He now leaned there and waited for the draughts of warmth to thaw them. Droplets and pieces of ice fell from his head to the stove’s flat top, hissing as they did so.    After this, he slept.

In the morning Grigoriev surveyed the damage that had been done to the windows of the cathedral. The details he had received were that a fierce storm had assailed the district in the late summer – bringing down trees, flooding land and drowning animals – during which much of the cathedral’s old and fragile glazing had been lost.

As Grigoriev made his inspection, white beams of light lanced the cathedral through its missing panes. One gathering of saints, with Christ at their centre, was so riven that at first glance it seemed to Grigoriev as if it had been the victim of some shelling or similar martial assault. He fetched a small ladder from the vestry, felt the glass that remained. He assessed its age, its thickness, ran his fingers over the lead ridges, put them through the gaps. At one point he placed his hand through a hole in Christ’s white, right breast. He climbed down, went back to the vestry and replenished the potbelly stove. He boiled water on it for tea and ate herrings from a tin.

The priest, when he came, went about his business – praying and kissing the cathedral’s modest icons – without acknowledging Grigor Grigoriev. As the priest walked away through the snow, in his black kamilavka and cape, Grigoriev looked from his ladder through a hole in the glazing where the eye of Saint Andrey should have been.

Throughout that morning Grigoriev traced the frames of the missing glass onto rolls of heavy paper. When necessary he rested the ladder on a trunk of vestments and another case, containing candles, incense and a censer, to reach the required heights. He recorded the lines of the lost panes in thick black pencil on the cream-white rolls by running the pencil’s tip along their ridged cames of lead: the diamonds, tears, petals, ribbons and wings accumulating until his paper was almost full. Around each he made notes as to the nature and colour of the adjacent panes that remained. As he did this, in the shadowed parts of the cathedral, his breath hung in the air, like sea fret.

At what he judged to be midday Grigoriev stopped working and went outside with his mug. He filled it with snow and then put it to melt on the stove. He stood in the arched doorway of the cathedral and studied the plain in front of him and the forests at its sides. His eyes made out where the priest seemed to have stepped through the snow. As Grigoriev stood there an icicle suspended from an eave dripped melt to his forehead. In its glassy trunk Grigoriev saw what seemed to be himself – pendulous, blurred… a streak. Carmine and golden light flared upon it in the sun. 

Grigoriev returned to the vestry where, never mind its stove, the temperature was colder than in the sunlight of the doorway. He drank black tea as he flexed his fingers and stamped his feet, finishing the tin of herrings that he had opened for his breakfast. He then ate three squares of baklava, having laid these to warm on the stove. The fine pastry and crystallized honey melted within him.

Afterwards, calculating that there was relatively little light left in the day and that he had made good progress that morning, he left the cathedral and walked out into the white plain. As he stepped through the snow, waded at times, he felt as if he were crossing not land, but an ocean. In the shallows the snow sprayed from his shins. In the concealed dips it cloyed at his thighs and, at times, his waist. He could no longer see the trail left by the priest. He wondered if it had snowed afresh while he had been taking his lunch, but then he dismissed this, deciding instead that the priest’s footprints must have melted in the sun.

Grigoriev turned and looked at the cathedral, topped with its black onion domes. He thought about what life, there, at Krasyansk, must have been like: its sawyers, their heavy horses hefting timber, strong-armed peasant women scything – quite possibly – the meadow under his feet. Ghosts now – all of them – of course. 

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. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Matthew G. Rees has, among other things, been a journalist, a teacher and a night-shift cab driver. He knows a man  who once saw Dylan Thomas order a whisky in a  bar  and pay for it himself. Recently he’s been undertaking a PhD at the University of Swansea, Wales, on the subject of imagery and fiction. Previously he taught English at a school in Moscow. His published stories include ‘Compass’, ‘Priest’, ‘Dead Wood’, ‘Bait Pump’ and ‘I’ve Got You’. One, ‘The Tip’, has been described as a ‘short, Gogol-esque masterpiece’. A new story, ‘The Word’, has been published as a numbered limited edition chapbook by The Three Impostors Press, of Wales,  as part of an homage to Arthur Machen. A play by Rees, Dragonfly, was recently performed professionally on tour in Wales. He is the editor of Horla. The website for Three Impostors is here: Three Impostors

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