From Innocent Hands and a Pure Heart

Giulia Zoratti
From Innocent Hands and a Pure Heart

Michail had a secret, and it was this secret which drove him to come and live in our mountains. Something which had persuaded him of the appeal of a completely solitary life. He came to talk to me several years ago when the parish announced that they were looking for someone to ask as caretaker of the monastery. I was tasked with finding someone capable of being completely on their own for months on end.
Michail turned up at my office, dressed in a smart suit and with a faint Russian accent. He had done his degree in Italian literature and harboured a great interest in theology. I thought at the time that he wanted to impress me, and curious I asked him a few questions: he spoke of his passion in such an articulate way that I felt quite ashamed of my own seminary education. Obviously I chose him. When he handed me his documents I noticed a photograph of a woman sticking out of one of the pages of his notebook. A fiancée, I assumed, but didn’t press the matter.
When Michail first went to the monastery it took him several trips to cart all of his precious books up there. He took up his post in mid-August, and he seemed cheerful, almost euphoric, about it. In his books he had all the company he could possibly need and, though I regret it now, I confess I brought him some myself in the hope of alleviating any loneliness he might feel.
The first time I went to visit him, in mid-autumn, Michail welcomed me with a smile and a raspy quality to his voice which suggested he was no longer used to speaking. He showed me all the work he had been undertaking in the monastery with great enthusiasm, and there was no denying that he had been given plenty to do. He had also sought out the old library, crammed with old manuscripts which had been damaged by the humidity so were already next to worthless, and was trying to salvage as many of them as possible.
I nodded in satisfaction at his efforts. It wasn’t until I returned home that I was hit with a vague sense of disquiet. Was it my admiration for Michail, which in truth bordered on envy, which kept me awake that night? Yet I sensed that it wasn’t that which was troubling me, that there was something else. Was I perhaps distrustful of a man who managed to find only joy in complete solitude?
I went to visit Michail a second time. It was winter. Something inside him had cracked. This time he didn’t even greet me. It was me who smiled and who schlepped between the freezing rooms of the place. Everything was as clean and tidy as when I had seen it in autumn. Only he seemed different, almost like he was being consumed from the inside out. Concerned for his health, I asked him if we might go to the kitchen, the only room in the monastery which had a fire. There, everything was in chaos. Cups and half-empty glasses were scattered all over the floor and the whole table was taken up with books. I tentatively asked Michail how he was getting on in the monastery, whether he felt well there.
“I’ve thought about it a lot,” he began, “This is the only place where I can find salvation.”
I immediately thought he was referring to the salvation of his soul. This time I wasn’t mistaken.
“What do you mean?”
“I admire your candour. I’d like to be like you, to be able to live amongst other people without problems ...”
“If there’s something on your mind, you know I can offer you Confession.”
“I don’t believe in Confession. Each of us must live with our sins, or we’ll never reach true penitence.”
I was more than a little taken aback by his answer, and tried to argue the point, but in vain.
As I was about to leave, I remarked upon the indisputable value the monastery held to history. Over the centuries various armies had used it as a depot and it was often used as a reference point when drawing up borders during battles. Michail’s expression immediately became one of interest.
“This was used as a border? A limen? But that explains everything!”
And without offering any further explanation, the young man bid me farewell and closed the heavy door of the monastery. My journey back seemed much longer than usual. As I plodded along I thought back on what Michail had said. Limen. It meant a boundary, but there was more to it than that: a beginning, a precept. I was convinced that the young man had come to the mountains in the hope of finding himself and that after this year he’d be able to start his life afresh. But then again, the word limen also implied a limit, an end. I hadn’t thought of that. I didn’t understand his final words: as for so many of the ancient texts that he loved, there was no exact translation for them.
That spring I received a threatening letter, roughly translated from Russian into Italian, which forced me to bring forward my intended visit to the monastery. The letter was from a woman, demanding that Michail come back to his country of origin as soon as possible in order to stand trial: my caretaker had run over a pregnant woman. The context of the incident was unclear. Apparently there was no Give Way sign where there should have been. She had ended up in a coma from which, according to the letter, she had never woken up and she had recently died. Michail had paid a fine and was free to go. The woman was now demanding justice for her daughter and for her unborn grandchild. I read it several times before laying the crumpled piece of paper on the desk. I searched the internet for any references to the case and it didn’t take me long to find them. Photographs of the girl in the coma fluttered in the streets. Revenge was sought. There was also a photo of Michail, with the world KILLER next to it.
I went straight to the monastery. I had barely set foot in the place before going straight to the kitchen where I saw that all of the food had gone off. I looked for Michail in the library. It was there that I found him, curled up on the floor, and beside him, a small collection of books on the absolution of sin.
From the tests it appeared that he had consumed a number of poisonous berries. It was foolish, they said.
As I went back towards the town, towards the police station, I stopped a few times, taking in the harmony of the forest: I was in no rush. The spring light filtering through the green seemed to reassure me as to the fate of that young man’s soul. But that didn’t stop me crying at length that evening for the passing of my friend. I knew it was suicide: and those same books that Michail loved had taught me that, for that sin, there could be no absolution.

Translation: Rosanna Forte
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