The door swung open, releasing a wave of noise and strong odors. At this time of evening, the workingmen of the little town gathered in the tavern to relax and ease away the day’s toil. The air inside, warmed by the many bodies in it, was thick with the smells of sweat, smoke, and liquors, and the atmosphere vibrated with loud voices, laughter, gushing of drinks and clanking of glass. The young man who had just entered, though, contrasted significantly with the surrounding scene. His clothing, mostly covered with a brown cloak, was simple and poor but not dirty. His face, its expression alert but serene, glanced intently around the crowded space, searching. Suddenly his gaze halted, fixed on something across the smoky air, and his face lit up with interest. He began to make his way toward what he had seen.
As he strode between the tables, attentive observers might have noticed the rowdy congregation of workingmen taking heed of his passing. He did not look at them, but where he came near, men lowered their shouting voices, wiped the dribbling ale from their beards, and generally attempted to look somewhat civilized. One, less subdued than the others, waved his handful of cards and called with a grin, “Ho, have a game with us?”
“Not now, Marek,” the other replied, his tone friendly but sober. A moment later, this quiet visitor had passed all the tables and reached the great room’s far corner, dusty, dim and furnished only with a few sacks. On these lay a long, narrow lump, covered in a threadbare gray cloak—a lump in which the young man had recognized a human shape.
He knelt beside the lump and said, softly but clearly, “This is no place for you.”
The lump stirred slightly, then grunted, “Who says?”
A smile of deep relief broke over the man’s face. “Dominika, why don’t you come with me?”
At this name the lump jerked upright. From beneath the cloak, a lean hand and arm peeled away the hood, and out peered the pinched, dirty face of a young girl, not more than seventeen. As she saw her visitor, her face broke into surprise and a wonder that was almost joy. Her mouth fumbled for a moment, then managed to form a cry, “Matus!” as she flung her bony arms around him.
“Finally,” he murmured, tenderly embracing her back. “I looked all over.”
Had any of the patrons in the tavern glanced over then, they might have been mildly puzzled at the poignant happiness being displayed in the corner. None of them would have known that in her unexpected visitor, Dominika had recognized her favorite cousin, a fading hope to which she had clung for the last two years.
Matus was the first to stir. Laying a hand on her shoulder, as if to gently prompt her to let go, he suggested, “Shall we go now?”
The girl looked into his face again. “Where to?” Innocent curiosity dominated her tone, but beneath it lay a subtle edge of anxiety.
“To supper, at my friends’ house,” he answered. “One of the families in town has invited us to eat with them.”
Instantly Dominika shrank back, her face hardened again in suspicion and fear. “They won’t want me. Nobody does,” she declared, with an almost fiercely flat certainty. “That’s why I stay here—it’s the one place I’m safe from people hating me.” She spat the words like rocks. A bit more softly, but still bitterly, she added, “You’d better go on and come back when you’ve done with them.”
Silently battling to control his pain at these words, Matus replied with firm assurance. “I won’t do that, Nika. I’m not leaving you here, like this. I told them you might be with me this evening, and they promised to welcome you if you were. I know Hana and Olo—they’re kind people and they’ll be glad to receive you.” When a moment passed and the girl still looked unconvinced, he bent nearer to her and added, “If they won’t take you, I won’t stay there either. . . . all right?”
Nika pondered this another moment, then feebly nodded. Matus rose and helped his cousin to her feet, and began to lead the way back across the crowded room. She stumbled and winced a little as she stood, and took limping steps after him, carefully working the foot that had been all but crushed on the same day that her old life had been lost. Matus, however, did not yet notice this.
Again, a trail of reactions followed the young man as he passed, but now these were not of quiet respect. Men stared, puzzled, shocked, displeased, at the two figures crossing through their midst. Nika stared grimly at the floor as she went; many months of unloving looks had hardened her to this kind of attention. Matus made no response, but in his heart welled up more sadness than generally occupied his serene spirit. The frowns aimed at him did not trouble him in the least, but that Nika should be their cause rent his heart.
Still, he remained silent until they neared the door. As they approached it, they passed near the counter, where the carbuncular youth serving drinks paused and raised an eyebrow. “Hi, Father,” he called, “you can’t be seen with that girl. She’ll make you a scandal all over town!”
Slowly Matus turned toward the speaker. Pausing to find the right tone, he settled on a quietly reproachful one as he answered, “Mind how you speak of my kin.” He turned back to the door, leaving the startled boy to ponder this revelation, and held it open for Nika. Still not raising her stony face, she walked out, and he followed.
Stepping from the tavern to the street felt like a small liberation. This street was mostly silent and empty, its daytime occupants having gone home to supper, so that the only sounds to be heard were a distant bird and a faintly rustling breeze. The midday heat had passed, leaving the air mild. The sun could no longer be directly seen, though its soft white afterglow still filled the pale sky. This dimming light reflected across the rows of little houses and shops, lined up in cheerful white and yellow rows, their doors looking forward like veiled faces. At least, Matus found the scene pleasant. Nika, limping behind him, hardly noticed it. She was preoccupied with other thoughts, chiefly the words of the bartender’s boy. They reminded her of something she had forgotten, and had not seen under Matus’ cloak.
At length she ventured, “So, you’re a priest now.”
Her cousin nodded. “That’s right. Since just a few weeks ago. Now I’ve been assigned here as assistant to Father Juraj.”
For a moment Matus was a bit puzzled that she should not know the pastor’s name, since he had heard that “the girl who hides in the tavern” had been there for nearly two years. Then he understood; she had not been going to the church. She might have heard Juraj’s name from others, but not enough times to remember it.
Nika could not sense these thoughts beneath her companion’s silence. The first blessed amazement of Matus’ arrival had nearly awakened long-unused parts of her heart, parts that had hardly been active since the black mischance that had deprived her of her parents and left her, alone, to survive in the wild. Now, though, much more recently used faculties were stirring again, among them suspicion, defensiveness, and sparks of anger. Of course, he had always been so pious and holy, and now he was a priest. Surely he had heard the rumors about her. What must he think of her for having stayed away from church so long? “Did you want to convert me?” she finally asked. The question came out with a bitter edge that she had not fully intended.
Matus blinked in confusion. “What?”
“Well, you know what I’m supposed to be,” she muttered. “Is that what you think too?”
The young priest winced. Never had he heard this accusing tone from his sweet little cousin—for “little” she still seemed to him. “No, Nika,” he answered quickly, with all the gentleness and assurance he knew. “The people who say those things don’t know you, but I’ve known you since you were born. No one could make me think ill of you.” Guessing then at her thoughts, he added with a smile, “Consecration to God doesn’t destroy human love. I’m still your Matus.”
At this a faint hint of a smile wedged a crack through the crusted mask of her face. “And I’m still your Nika.” This came in a scarcely audible murmur.
“Of course,” he replied, still smiling at her. Then at last he realized that she was struggling to keep up with him. “Oh! I’m sorry! I’m going too fast. Are you hurt?” For answer she simply held out her disfigured foot. “Ahh . . . I’m so sorry,” he repeated. “Does it pain you?”
Nika shrugged. “It’s been that way. I can walk all right.”
“Okay. But we’ll go slower now. Tell me if you need to sit down.”
In the silence that ensued, Matus offered an earnest, wordless prayer for the girl. If he rejoiced to have found her, he was no less horrified at her transformation. When he had last seen her, a few months before her parents’ death, she had seemed the nymph of the woods around her home—beautiful, exuberant, smiling, loving to sing and dance and run through the trees, loving her family above all, but warm toward any she might meet. Now her lovely, fresh young body had been shriveled, with too little flesh between the bones and dirty skin, not to mention her injured foot. Her ragged dress and cloak looked as if she had been clinging to them for months. And that hard, fierce look in her eyes . . . that too was painfully different, but it did not surprise him. He knew her tender heart, and how helpless she must have been to shield it against ill-treatment such as she had never known.
Now they were coming to the house where they were to dine. Nika eyed it with critical apprehension—another house like all the rest, painted a yellowish white with an egg-colored door in front, the windows glowing warmly through the thin veils of curtains. A familiar sight, a world of peace and happiness that was barred to her. She could hardly control her suspicion at the prospect that she would now be let in.
Matus knocked, three mild but distinct raps, then made a quick gesture of blessing, as was his custom when visiting. They heard voices inside and a patter of feet, and then the door cracked open. Out peered a small girl, looking quite excited to be answering the knock, who called behind her, “Hi, Ma! The new father’s here!” Glancing at Nika, she added, “And his friend!”
A moment later, the door swung wide, letting the opening frame a woman, puffing but beaming, with flour still clinging to her hands and apron. She was considerably past her first youth, but exuded such a cheerfulness and energy that no one would have said she seemed aging. “Ah, Father, good evening, come in!” she exclaimed, standing aside and gesturing for them to enter. “We’ve just been finishing—and this? Your, er, your cousin?”
A crucial moment had come. “Yes indeed,” Matus replied warmly, smiling and silently praying that no unfortunate word would escape on either side. “This is Dominika. Thank you for having us tonight. Nika, this is my friend Hana.”
The girl looked up at her hostess with the guarded, sullen air that had proven such a necessary shield against strangers. Hana hardly seemed to notice. “Oh, my, poor dear! Oh, you’re all bones; what have you had to live on? And your clothes—why, it’s like you’re wrapped in spiderwebs! You’ll live better tonight, never fear,” she bubbled, her face melting with compassion. Turning to her children, who had gathered behind her, she began calling out orders. “Kico, Pavol, go quick and prepare a bath! Jana, go to my chest and find something clean for her. Ivana, check the stew, see that it doesn’t burn—I’ll be there shortly.” Then to her guests again: “Here, now, mayn’t I take your cloaks for you? Come, sit down; my husband should be along any moment.”
They had been standing in a plain little hallway, and now followed Hana from there into the kitchen, well-lit with lamps as well as the fire where a pot steamed. One of their hosts’ daughters, about twelve years old, was stirring the pot and adding water. The two guests took seats at the table, already set with dishes and plates, while Hana bustled off with their cloaks. From the next room they heard her cry, “Ah, Olo, there you are! Father’s here now, and his cousin”—and then she added something in a lower voice that they couldn’t hear. Nika’s face contracted again as she stared up at a lamp.
Quickly Matus turned to her. “You see, it’s all right,” he said quietly. “They want you to feel at home here.”
The girl didn’t look back. “My parents were my home. No one wants me now.”
Before her cousin could answer, Hana’s husband Olo entered, bidding them welcome and good evening. He shook Matus’ hand, greeted Nika with a cordial “Hullo, lass,” as if her presence were nothing unusual, then sat down with them and commenced smoking. Though he had no objection to a friendly chat, Olo, unlike his wife, preferred to relax quietly with company. They all sat in silence for a minute before Matus inquired how business had been. Nika was just figuring out that Olo was a tanner when Hana returned to tell her that the bath was ready. Still silent, the girl got up, clenching her jaw a bit as she stood on her bad foot, and followed her hostess. Nika felt no excitement at the prospect of her first bath in two years, not counting summertime plunges in a creek. She was used to dirt, she told herself, but why not get clean if she had a chance? It could do no harm, anyway.
When the two women had gone, Olo looked at Matus with a thoughtful, concerned look. “You sure there is nothing to that girl’s reputation?”
The young priest chose his words with care. “Yes, I am,” he began simply. “I’ve known her well all her life. She was always an innocent and sensitive soul . . . and she’s had a hard fate these two years. She’s . . . deeply hurt, by the way she’s been treated.”
The tanner frowned. “Well, let it be far from me to hurt a sensitive girl. I never said aught to her.”
“I know.” Matus nodded, his tone implying nothing one way or another. Silence settled over the table again, leaving his mind to wander back to the events of two years ago—his relatives’ mysterious disappearance while traveling; the searches of the countryside; the eventual discovery of a collapsed hillside road, and beneath it the shattered wagon and his aunt and uncle’s bodies; the long, fruitless searches for Nika, for whom he had never quite lost hope.
As the little girls washed the dishes, Matus gazed thoughtfully out at the darkening sky. He had not expected much right away, but still, the evening had not quite been what he had hoped. Throughout their supper, the family had tried to include Nika in their conversation. Hana had made a particular effort, asking friendly questions about the girl’s origins and interests. Nika, however, had responded only with grunts or a few words, and had scarcely looked up from her plate. She had eaten with a keen appetite, but without the pleasure that could be called eagerness. She looked vastly better, with her body and long hair laboriously cleaned and her rags traded for a rather oversized but new garment; but the dully fierce look in her eyes was still evident. Eventually all had silently concluded that the most tactful course was to let her be.
Now Hana, glancing at his face, unthinkingly concluded that the disappointment was somehow her fault. “Oh, father,” she murmured unhappily, hastening to his side, “she breaks my heart, she does. I think no harm of the poor child—there’s no shortage of girls down on their luck, and if you say she’s a good girl I believe you. But what can we do for her? I’d be glad for her to stay with us—we can manage the room, and my own daughters would enjoy a sister, sure. But she doesn’t seem happy at all here. And how could we protect her from common opinion?”
After a moment of silence, during which her guest’s quiet, masculine mind absorbed this feminine rush of rapid words, Matus turned to her with a little smile. “Don’t worry. You’ve been doing all you can. She may not be able to appreciate it now—she’s still too broken. But she will when she’s ready.”
Hana frowned. “Well, yes, that may all be very true. But . . . oh, father, you say how hurt she is, and I can see it. You think we can mend her repute with the others?”
Matus thought again, then answered. “No, likely not. In time, possibly, but you’re right—it would be hard for her to stay. I can defend her name, but I’m still new here. They may not all trust me as much as you and Olo do.”
Hana looked very distressed. “Oh, what’s to be done for her?” Without waiting for a reply, she added, “Truly, father, I’d not blame God if He visited His judgment on all this town for leaving Nika so long in such a plight. And on me, too. I knew there was a girl living alone in the tavern; I knew she had no one. Where’s the kindness in us when it’s needed?”
Matus shrugged, observing mildly, “Most likely all of us are still here only because God is so much kinder than we.” Then, hoping to cheer her a bit, he went on, “I might know a good place for Nika. You know the Sisters at Zachrana?”
Hana thought a moment, then beamed. “Oh yes, I’ve been that way. Lovely place they have there. But—but, father, what do you mean? You aren’t thinking of having her become her a nun surely?”
“No, not necessarily, anyway,” Matus replied, smiling again. “You see, those Sisters run a shelter for girls who come from the streets or other dangerous situations. They give them a safe home, teach them skills and trades, and, well, look after them until they’re able to be on their own.”
“Oh, that’s perfect! That’s perfect for Nika,” Hana declared, clasping her hands with pleasure. “But—but will she go, father? Do you think she’ll want to?”
“I think she will; but maybe not yet,” Matus answered. “I’ll ask her about it. But give her some time. Can she stay here meanwhile?”
“Of course, of course, father. As long as she likes,” Hana fervently assured him.
For the next three days, Nika remained at the tanner’s house. She never set foot in the street and saw no one except the family and Matus, who came to visit her every day. At each visit, he asked if she would like to have confession and Communion. Each time, she answered that she needed more time to think about her confession. She felt less than candid in saying this; the truth was that she could not muster the courage to probe her own heart for what truly required repentance.
She had spent the last two years insistently reviewing what was not her fault. That she had fallen into the river, when the rockslide toppled her family’s wagon, was not her fault. That her foot had been half-crushed there was not her fault. The wrong that the stranger had done her in the countryside, so frightful and so inescapably haunting, was not her fault. The fate of the tiny life that had consequently begun within her, and nine months later ended as suddenly and grimly as it began, was not her fault. The townspeople’s assumptions about the origin of that life were not her fault. Nothing was her fault. Or was it? Had she not said or done anything reproachable? Had nothing ugly or poisonous taken root in her during these years?
I’m just ugly, and wretched, she thought bitterly each time. Nobody ever took a second glance at me. Nobody ever cared. Dirt outside, festering wounds inside, crippled in both. Ruin. Nothing anyone wants to look at or touch.
On the fourth day, after prolonged, earnest prayer, Matus decided that it was time. Arriving at the house in the evening, he found his cousin on a step just outside the back door, mending a tunic. Sitting down beside her, he said gently, “Nika, we need to find a permanent home for you.”
The girl didn’t look up from her needle, or rather Hana’s needle. “I know it.”
“I thought you might prefer to leave this town, and go someplace where no one knows you,” he went on. Getting no response, he explained, “I know some Sisters who live near Zachrana, who have a shelter for girls. It’s safe, and comfortable, and peaceful there.”
Nika stopped sewing and stared out at the grass. For a long moment she said nothing, her face hard as stone. Eventually she murmured, “A home for street women . . . for loose girls. I’m not one of them.”
“No, it’s not like that,” Matus hastened to explain. “Those girls aren’t there because they’ve done wrong; they’re there because they have nowhere to go. Like you.”
Nika still didn’t look convinced. “They’ll start asking questions. Someone will. They’re nuns. They live so . . . away. They won’t understand the foulness I’ve been through. They won’t accept me.”
“That’s not true,” Matus protested, taking great care to keep his tone mild and sympathetic. “A good nun is like a mother to everyone. She lives close to God, and He teaches her kindness and understanding. I know the Sisters at Zachrana. They accept anyone who needs them.”
Still staring at the ground, Nika was now breathing hard. She hardly saw anything before her; she was struggling to grope through the storms of emotion and confused thought within her. What was this cold contraction holding her back? Finally she gave out a dry half-whisper: “I’m afraid.”
Ah, here was something. Carefully Matus probed: “What are you afraid of?”
This question seemed to call up an unexpected blaze of clarity, like lightning leaping toward a metal rod. An intense heat like lightning crackled in the girl’s voice as she sputtered, “I’m afraid of what looks like happiness, Matus! It always cheats me! I was happy before, but remembering that time now only hurts, because it’s gone and I can’t get it back! And if anyone since then has ever shown me a little kindness, it’s always come to nothing. Nothing I get hold of ever helps me. Sometimes I’ve thought I saw some hope, but whenever I tried to get it it always vanished. This world is cold and cruel and . . . and it has nothing to give! Not to someone like me, in its pits, anyway. Whenever something looks like happiness, Matus, it . . . it’s a trick! The whole thing is a trick!” Her voice broke. Something too long contained was rising out of her. Her burning words had been, as it were, the first layer of that something.
Her cousin did not respond right away. His sadness for Nika, sharp as it was, had never overwhelmed him, and did not do so now. To this tirade against the universe, his immediate response was a silent prayer. God knew this girl’s suffering, and cared for her wounded heart, even more than he, Matus, did. Surely the Father of them both would not refuse them the help they needed.
Then the young priest glanced up at the darkening sky. A fleece of cloud, shadowy in the twilight, spread over most of the heavens; but in the midst of this cover a wide gap had opened, a doorway in the darkness, revealing a deep blue pool of sky where stars were now emerging and glittering. A new thought came to him.
“Nika,” he said, “do you remember, when we all lived in Pamat, that day when we went and stayed in the other village across the river, and you came with us? and then the floods came and made it too dangerous to cross back?”
The girl looked at him, surprised at the seemingly random question, but nodded.
“Remember how upset you were not to be home that night with your parents?” Matus went on. Again, a silent nod. “And then, remember what cheered you up?”
Nika thought for a moment. “I could see the lights.”
“Yes indeed.” Matus smiled. “You and Kristina and Palo kept saying that you could see the lights of our village, that we were just a stone’s throw away and we’d be home soon. And then you threw rocks to see if you could really hit it.” Despite herself, Nika managed a faint near-smile.
“Look up now,” her cousin told her, pointing at the sky. “What do you see?”
She frowned, but looked up. “The sky . . . clouds, stars.”
“There are lights up there too, aren’t there?” Matus explained. “And those, Nika, are the lights of our home, where God our Father is. Maybe not in the strict sense, but they still signify to us something real. He is near us—much nearer than your parents were to you that night. There is real peace and happiness for us, which He wills to give to us, in His country, which is ours too. But we can also have some of that peace here, by relying on Him, and remembering that He is near us, wherever we go, whatever happens. With Him, it is never a trick. He does not deceive or let down anyone. He is Truth . . . and He is Love.”
Nika stared up, gasping a little as if struggling to breathe. “Why did He let all this happen to me?” she rasped.
“I don’t know,” Matus replied, with the sadness of compassion, but still with calm. “It doesn’t make sense to me either. But then, He let something much like it happen to His own Son.” After a brief pause, he added, “And you know what came afterwards.”
At this, whatever force had been holding back Nika’s emotions suddenly snapped. She gasped harder, her shoulders shook, and the tears finally burst their way out. The next minutes seemed to last an age, as she pressed her head against her cousin’s shoulder and sobbed freely, releasing all the agony that had accumulated in her over the last two years. Matus, one arm around the girl’s thin shoulders, said nothing, quietly receiving the overflow of her heart and continuing to offer silent prayer for her. Footsteps and other muffled sounds came from inside the house, but no one emerged from the back door.
At last, the storm began settling; Nika’s tears subsided, leaving her quiet and still. When she sat up straight, Matus stood, blessed her, wished her goodnight, and left.
For a long time afterwards, she sat there on the step, staring up at the myriad lights burning through the darkness.
The next evening, Nika made her confession to Matus and attended his Mass in the church’s little chapel. Only Hana, Olo and their children came with her; they had carefully arranged things so that she would not have to appear in public. The remnants of Nika’s tears were still emerging, and came in short bursts as she received the sacraments, but the fierceness and bitterness had gone from her eyes.
After the Mass, she approached her cousin with a weary little smile, as if she had just come from a prolonged battle. She said simply, “I would like to go to Zachrana.”
In a few days’ time, the necessary arrangements were made. Nika bade farewell to her hosts, and was surprised to feel genuine affection and a twinge of regret at leaving them. Matus escorted her to the Sisters’ house, just outside the city of Zachrana, tranquilly nestled amid tall trees by the river Mir. What followed unfolded as he had fully expected. The nuns received Nika with motherly warmth and smiles, showing her to a room she would share with two other girls, who also welcomed her with courtesy.
Nika received all this in something of a daze. The old, nagging suspicions were not dead; she could hardly believe that, so shortly after she had been the refuse of all, she was now accepted and even wanted, and that by persons with no particular connection to her. And yet, the recent days had strongly indicated that love was still a possibility for her. After all, Matus had come, and he was still his dear sweet self; neither his vocation nor her disfigurement had changed his love for her. So far, everyone to whom he had brought her had also been kind, and had given her no real grounds to doubt them—perhaps they were, after all, like her parents, and others she had known less well in her earlier life. And that “they” even included God.
The Sisters asked Matus if he wouldn’t like to stay with them for dinner or even for the night, as it was getting late. He thanked them but explained that he had duties to return to at his own parish. He regretted having to leave Nika, but for the first time in two years, he was no longer worried about her. Her needs, various and complex as they were, would be provided here.
Nika, however, felt a stab of panic as she saw her cousin preparing to depart. Impulsively she threw her arms around him and held tight, exclaiming, “I don’t want you to leave me!”
Matus paused a moment, then put his hands on her shoulders and gently pried her off. “I’ll be back,” he promised. “I’ll come look in on you, don’t worry. I can’t stay here now, but remember—your Father is always close to you.” Here he began to smile again, almost unconsciously. “He’s given you a new life because He wants to give you new blessings through it. Just wait, and you’ll see.”
Nika paused a moment, looking up at his face. That warm, shadowless smile was a precious relic, a piece of the old, dear days. Now it seemed a sign, an assurance that all really would be well, that there was a real warrant for that strange, sweet feeling called peace. Slowly she nodded and whispered, “Okay.”
By the time Matus reached his town, the stars were sparkling through the dimming heavens. A contented thankfulness filled him as he reflected on the past week or so. His little cousin had been found and rescued, and now she was safe and well. At least, she would be well; he was confident of this, though it would take time. She did still have a long way to go. It would take much time, patience, and prayer. But she had opened a door, and for now, that would be enough.