She ought to confess, Irina thought. Since her arrival at the convent, a few days before, Kitza had kept on talking about it, she said it did you good, God helped you and your wishes came true. It was the beginning of April and spring had made itself at home, slow but sure. Placed between the hills about twenty kilometres from Vaslui, without running water or electricity, at the edge of the forest, the convent hadn’t had time to soak up the dampness of the newly plastered walls. It didn’t yet have a soul of its own, the way long lived in buildings and rooms do. The cross on top of the church was leaning at an angle after the winter snow storm. But everything seemed nice and easy.
Her greatest wish had been to be with Kitza again, the way they used to be in the orphanage, when they slept in the same room, listened to music and swung on the edge of the bed. A family in Germany wanted to invite her to go there in June. They meant to adopt her, despite her being over twenty years old. If she went, who knew when she’d see Kitza again! Paraskiva was her best friend. They’d been joined at the hip since secondary school and that’s when she started calling her Kitza. In Jamaica, they used to play cards in the dormitories, where children from Hostel Number 2 used to sleep. They called it Jamaica because that was the district of the Gypsies. God preserve you if you were out after dark there. And even in broad daylight…
Kitza was well-built, like she was, and her cheeks were as firm and fleshy as two apples ripened on the tree. She wrote from the convent that Father Daniel was a good man and that in Tanacu they fed you twice a day, Lenten fare without meat, but you got food all the time, not like in the orphanage where the older ones forced you to hand over the best bits. And if you didn’t, they turned nasty.
She remembered how she used to trick them when she came back with food from her village, or whenever she received a parcel from Germany. “Let’s go to the pisser”, she’d say loudly, if others were hanging around. Kitza knew at once something yummy was just round the corner. They hid in the toilet and stuffed themselves. Sometimes they shared the food with her brother, Vasile. He was two years older, but so helpless – a tadpole! Once she had some brioche and she gave him a slice, in full view of everyone, in the orphanage yard. Little Girlie gulped it down in no time. All she had to do was wipe a last crumb off his cheek. Like the caress of a strong sister, a fighter, on the cheek of her brother, a cowed boy. He only got treats when he found a randy protector among the older boys. Well, but of course she knew: that was why they called him Girlie!
Now they had both come to Tanacu and Vasile wanted to stay either in the other household in the valley or in the monks’ hermitage, some twenty kilometres away, over the hills, in Portari. There were some boys living there who wanted to take their vows. Every evening, the priest would call in to see them, sometimes bring bits and pieces to eat, he’d give them advice and they’d talk and they’d pray… Vasile had heard that, originally, the main building was meant for monks, but the bishop refused to ordain any of them as priests and therefore they dispersed and went looking for other monasteries. As time went by, around twenty nuns found shelter in Tanacu. It was they who now occupied the cells and took care of the housekeeping. The boys in search of sainthood found a place in the valley, in one of the convent’s annexes. It would have been good for him to stay there with them. It would have been somehow like the orphanage and he wouldn’t have to go back to the Stolojescu family, in Caras Severin County, where they made you do a lot of work and it wasn’t easy to earn your bed or the meals they gave you. Vasile had told Father Daniel that Irina saved some money after her visit to Germany, around 4000 euros, plus 500 which were due to Vasile, and the priest advised him to move to Tanacu, near the convent.
“Vasile, hard times are coming, and it would be good for both of you to have a roof over your heads”, said the priest. “If, God forbid, they close the convent and hermitage, I’ve got a family, I’ve got somewhere to go. But what will you do? Well then, with this money, you’d better buy a little house for yourselves, so that you’ve got your own four walls around you, too.”
After this discussion Vasile couldn’t think straight, he worried all the time about their money that the Stolojescus were taking care of. And since Irina was going to Germany anyway…
The evening before, mother Neonila had allowed him into Kitza’s cell, so the three of them had been able to go on talking until past midnight: he, Irina and Kitza had been making plans.
That evening, Father Daniel went to sleep feeling pleased with himself. The earth smelled moist, of spring roots returning to life. It was pitch dark so you couldn’t see a thing, not even the fence near the woods, but the starry sky was close and God was bringing people to his convent. Let the Vicar General pour scorn on him for ever, that hierarch, with his trimmed and perfumed beard, and his affectations of a theologist educated abroad. No matter how much the bishop hounded him, God saw and knew them all and rewarded each man according to what lay in his heart. And lo and behold, now He had brought to the convent a brother and sister, Paraskiva’s friends, two children accustomed to hardship.
This wasn’t the first time he’d met with abandoned children, those who’d grown up in famished and beaten herds throughout all the orphanages built in Ceausescu’s time. As soon as they reached eighteen, they were summarily discharged. The authorities granted them one million old lei and that was it, over to them to make the best of it, the world was a big place. No trade, no family, no roof above your head, no help whatsoever. Paraskiva had come in 2003 to make her confession and look at her now: two years had passed since her arrival and she was always doing the toughest work! The priest gazed at the light of the icon-lamp, as tiny as a pinhead, and knelt down in his narrow cell where there was only just enough room to genuflect. He crossed himself fervently.
“Glory to you, Lord, for strengthening our community!”
He knew that girls raised in the orphanage were like carthorses, avoided fooling around with men, and were good labourers. Just what was needed, as the time had come for digging the ground and planting trees in the convent yard, fitting the new rafters and finishing off the cells. Since 2004 he had refused any wages from the bishopric in Husi and in this way severed almost all his links to the hierarchs, but he put all his trust in God’s help and justice. Why, you had to refuse, didn’t you, because the wages were paid in wine and plum raki which you were supposed to sell to make money! “I don’t need any payment”, he said and gave up the seventeen state salaries the convent was entitled to.
Things weren’t going to be any more difficult than at the beginning! During his first year as a student in the faculty in Iasi he’d spent his holiday in Lipova where an old priest, Elefterie, persuaded him to switch to long distance learning, and use the time saved to erect a monastery. Elefterie had him doing all the jobs for six months, until he realised redemption wasn’t easy to achieve even amongst the monks…
Broken by the things he’d seen and heard, his soul like an abyss, he went to Husi to see the Holy Ioachim and to get his advice. He stayed in Husi a while, until Ioachim asked him to become his driver.
Daniel Corogeanu was twenty four at the time. He already knew the truth of the saying that one should never stand in front of the boss or behind a horse, and he refused the job. In the summer of 2000, when the mayor of Tanacu first showed him the plot where the church and monastery were to be built, he fell on his knees and, his eyes taking in almost five acres of land, yelled:
“Lord, may this be the place!”
In the midst of hills, close to the forest. In winter and spring one could hardly get there, swimming either through snow or through slush. All the better. The go-ahead came directly from Vaslui, where a religious-minded businessman, Anton Georgescu, put in a word because he was eager to fund the building of the monastery. Georgescu was a member of the diocesan assembly of Husi and had made a trip to Mount Athos. People said a confessor there advised him to have a monastery built to atone for a heavy sin of his youth. He’d had no peace of mind until he found the clergyman and the piece of land he needed. They met at a nearby monastery, at Burcel Hillock.
In eight days, the chapel in Tanacu was ready. The people from the village came, bringing dung, clay or wood and made a small house as pretty as a bride. On 27 August, the Vicar General Corneliu Barladeanul blessed the chapel and the site of the future foundation of the church. Two years later, Father Daniel conducted the first mass in the church of the Holy Trinity convent. “Do you have your own antimis? You do. Go in the church and celebrate mass!” old Bishop Ioachim had commanded. His deputy, Barladeanul, didn’t want to hear anything about a mass until the walls were covered in frescoes. “What would you have me bless, stones?”, Barladeanul said when he was asked to come and consecrate the church. Corneliu was part of the generation of hierarchs educated in the West and wasn’t concerned, the way Father Daniel was, about the admission of Romania to the European Union or about the loss of the ancestral faith.
His soul heavy with sadness, he got over the deputy’s refusal, as well. In fact he’d been granted the authorisation, in his own name, the birth certificate of the church, the sacred square of cloth, the holy antimis, depicting the Entombment of the Saviour in the centre, and down in one corner bearing the inscription: “It is I, Bishop Ioachim of Husi, who consecrated this antimis, in 2000, for the Holy Trinity monastery, of Tanacu….”
So the hardest ordeal was over. He’d defeated many temptations which could have dragged him towards the vanities of the world. But as he often said about himself, he wasn’t used to being stupid and now God was rewarding his faith and stubbornness on the path to saintliness. And it was God, too, who was now sending Irina and Vasile to enlarge the numbers of their community.
Father Daniel did a few more genuflexions, blew out the candle and went to sleep still murmuring the Prayer of the Heart: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, Thy sinner.” He pulled the thin woollen bedspread over himself and fell asleep, proud of the fact of his long red beard which was useful at times for keeping warm in the privacy of his damp, mud-floored cell, and at other times as public proof of his wisdom. Because of the beard, at twenty nine years of age he looked sixty.
- “Mother, I’d like to stay here longer, in the convent”, said Irina, gazing at the back of Mother Neonila who was squatting and planting roses. It was Tuesday morning, the sun was up, the sky was clear and it was past ten. She had woken late after the evening with Paraskiva and Vasile. In any case she hadn’t adjusted yet to the convent’s timetable. After mass at seven, the nuns busied themselves in the yard or in the kitchen, each one with her own task and blessing distributed by Father Daniel. Neonila turned round and sheltered her eyes from the sunlight with her hand.
“Will you take me in? I don’t know anything about the Church, about God”, said Irina.
“It’s one’s will that counts”, answered the nun, lowering her hand because the girl was now close enough to provide full shadow with her well-built body. She had hidden her round breasts, as firm as stones, under a large, coarse, black coat, just like Paraskiva who was praying to God to change her body and take her breasts away. “If you really want Him strongly enough and feel your love for God inside your whole soul, there’s no obstacle”, said Neonila with conviction. She had come to Tanacu in 2001, at the very beginning, and had worked tirelessly alongside Father Daniel. She was three years older than him.
“I’ll go and help Kitza with the digging”, said Irina, overcome with shyness, and she made for the place where she’d seen Paraskiva struggling with a hoe. Kitza was preparing holes for the small acacia trees they were going to plant in the yard, on the alley leading to the stone church.
Mother Neonila went back to her work, took a handful of compost and spread it around the rose cutting. She liked this girl, Paraskiva’s friend, despite her wearing trousers. She had come here in jeans, in a garnet-red waterproof jacket and trainers. That’s how they were, these girls from the Children’s Home, they behaved like boys. So did Paraskiva, who wore her trousers under her long coat and wouldn’t surrender her cap or replace it with a scarf under any circumstances. Irina seemed determined and well-meaning. She’d known of her for some time now because, each time Irina wrote to Paraskiva from Germany she was the one who got the letters first, as was the rule in the convent, and the one who handed them to Paraskiva. Sometimes Paraskiva told her what Irina had written. She sent letters even when she was in Romania, with the Stolojescu family: “Kitzo”, Irina wrote, “here in the church, in Banat, everyone kneels and the priest hears confessions globally. I’d like to confess alone, face to face, and speak of what’s in my heart.”
Once she sent Paraskiva a packet of sweets and clothes and an envelope with 50 euros from Germany. Neonila had gone to collect the packet and the customs officer scolded her for receiving money through the post like that, didn’t she know this wasn’t allowed? No, she didn’t, how could she have known, but anyway the money was wasted because it had got wet and Paraskiva couldn’t do anything with it.
Yes, it’d be good if Irina too stayed in the convent as she said that there in Banat they gave her meat to eat, meat again and again and she’d had enough, she wanted a life of saintliness, like Paraskiva and, above all, to confess properly at least once in her life. “Poor child”, thought Mother Neonila as she closed the gate which separated the convent from the huge world outside and on which Father Daniel had had inscribed: “This is the House of God. Here the angels sing. Here God speaks. And people listen, pray, repent, become saintly, live as in heaven, next to God”.
After she had come to visit Kitza, over the next few days, Irina worked hard: she dug, fetched water and took part in the prayers shoulder to shoulder with the nuns, had meals with them at the same table, listened to them reading from the Lives of the Saints and kept interrogating them about what you had to do for a proper confession. She liked it when they covered their mouths with their hands in astonishment as she demonstrated karate moves, the kind she had seen in movies featuring Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee and Van Damme. Kitza also still knew a few movements from the time when they practised together in the bedrooms, on the fourth floor, in order to defend themselves against the boys, but after entering the convent she’d used her strength only for housework. Irina kept trying to provoke her. Nothing doing.
In the orphanage they’d had karate classes for several months. Out of the mass of teachers who came and went in the management of the Centre, one alone thought of channelling the anger and frustration of the institutionalised children into sports activities and organised some karate lessons. It didn’t last long but Irina liked it tremendously. Since then, she’d kept on practising. Once she carried a girl on her back, a chick they called Corina Chiriac, and took her up to the fourth floor of the block where the dormitories were. “I’ll hold her like this and you hit her with your feet and fists”, she told Paraskiva. “No, Irina”, Kitza had said, “Leave her alone. I’ll stand up straight and you can kick me, if you want to learn karate.” Their room was on the third floor, but they often went to the fourth where there was more space. Irina hit her stomach, her back, hit her wherever she could. If one spot got too painful, Kitza would say “Now move somewhere else for a bit”, and she’d aim at another. Kitza took the blows because she knew Irina’s moods didn’t last long and because she was fond of her.
That’s how Irina was, a “bore”. In the hostel, when you wanted to say that certain people made you suffer, you said they were a bore. Irina was a “bore” but she defended Kitza against the taunts of the older girls. On the fourth floor they practised a lot of movements together: the flick, the spin, the splits. And it got into their heads that if you didn’t know karate, you couldn’t defend yourself against the boys. She remembered how they used to fight against the other children, secretly, behind the hostel, where the educators never came to look for them. Whenever there was blood they stopped.
In the convent, Irina abstained from all that, and Kitza urged her to confess and receive Communion. In a previous letter, she had asked if a person could take the Eucharist at any time. No, Irina, Kitza wrote back. The Eucharist is the body and blood of the Redeemer, when He sacrifices Himself on the sacred table! After that Irina surprised her by turning up at the convent. Even now she still couldn’t bring herself to believe that Irina had come from so far away to bring her so much joy! Moreover, she heard her calling Mother Neonila “Mummy” and Father Daniel “Daddy”. Irina’s true mother from Perieni, the village they sometimes went to during the holidays, had a habit of beating her. If on top of everything she was drunk, she punished Irina for Vasile’s mischief. She loved her son more. About their father, Ion Cornici, the rumours in the orphanage were that he had hanged himself when his children were small and Irina had seen the whole thing.
Translated by Delia Radu & Stephen Winfield