It was evening, and gusts of wind swirled the snow through the city’s grey boulevards. Citizens leaving work for the day shielded their faces from the flurries and pushed their way onto overcrowded buses. A sullen babushka carrying two netted sacks filled with sausages trudged along the white sidewalk and stepped off the curb into Metallurgov Street. In the blustery weather, her aging eyes failed to see the oncoming trolleybus. The conductor of the bus, a thin mustachioed man in an oversized blue uniform, saw the old woman step from the curb, and frantically began pounding the horn. In a high-pitched nasal voice, he shouted for her to get out of the way. Oblivious to the steel death hurtling towards her, the babushka continued further into the street. The conductor wrenched the brake with all his might, but between the trolleybus’s rusted parts and the muddy slush blanketing the road, he knew a collision was inevitable. He crossed himself and squeezed his eyes shut. Moments before impact, a golden flash appeared in the darkening sky and Barlaam the Patron Saint of Cherepovets, swooping down in an instant, snatched the old woman from the path of the screeching bus. Flying effortlessly over the city’s snow-covered roofs, Barlaam wrapped his divine arms securely around the babushka’s large bosom and flabby neck. Citizens pointed to the heavens as the radiant saint sailed gracefully across the winter sky with two plump legs dangling below him. As the frigid air whipped across Barlaam’s seraphic face, he reflected on his role as the city’s patron saint.
“You’ve saved another one!” said Barlaam to himself proudly, and he kissed the disoriented babushka on the top of her head. But the saint’s satisfaction was short-lived and his triumphant smile quickly turned into a resentful scowl. “And yet with all the fine work I’m doing, the Council of Saints didn’t even consider me for a promotion this year!” Troubled by his lowly station in Cherepovets, Barlaam inadvertently tightened his grip on the old woman, who began struggling in his arms like a goat with its head caught in a fence. “I mean it’s not as though I expect a position in Moscow or St. Petersburg, but I should imagine that someone of my stature deserves an appointment in Novgorod or even Vladivostok. I’d be perfectly satisfied with Vladivostok,” he concluded, flying through wisps of smoke gently rising from the city’s many smokestacks.
Barlaam’s discontent was not entirely unfounded. After all, in life, he had miraculously cured the Wallachian Boyar, Stepan, of his canine madness, and Ivan the Young’s second cousin, Gleb, of his perennial epistaxis. Some doubt existed as to his role in Anastasia of Kazan’s sudden recovery from milk leg, but two, possibly three miracles while living was not inconsequential. Barlaam knew of other saints with fewer miracles who now held fine positions in Voronezh and Saratov.
“Alas!” Barlaam sighed, “Here I am stuck in Cherepovets all because I was a hermit.” To make sense of the seeming injustice, he had concluded that to become a patron saint in one of the more populous Russian cities, one needed to be a martyr or, at the very least, a prince. As the suffocating babushka’s efforts to loosen the saint’s hold on her became increasingly feeble, Barlaam pondered his earthly life and then shouted into the black sky: “It wasn’t easy being a hermit, you know! Spending decades hungry and alone wasn’t all fun and games!” Disgusted with what he perceived as arbitrary criteria for the advancement of saints, Barlaam spat onto the street below. His faith in the whole ecclesiastical system was at a dismal low. And yet, in the self-pitying narrative Barlaam had constructed for himself, he stubbornly refused to acknowledge that a series of mishaps occurring over the past year could have informed the Council’s decision to overlook him for promotion.
In the last twelve months, Barlaam had, most unfortunately, killed seven of the city’s residents and a visitor from Perm, who was in Cherepovets attempting to reconcile with a scorned mistress. These deaths were unintentional, of course, but nevertheless, eight was a rather high number for one year. Barlaam’s most recent mishap was particularly unfavorable for his career prospects, as it was thoroughly tragic. Several months ago, while patrolling the city sky, Barlaam spotted a warehouse fire. He darted into the building and heroically retrieved a young Orthodox boy from inside the conflagration. But as Barlaam flew the child to the cheering crowd below, he mistakenly deposited him into the icy Sheksna River where the boy then drowned. Three days later, the city held a funeral. Women wailed and men pounded their chests. Several people even closed their eyes to Christ – a significant demerit in any patron saint’s annual evaluation. The boy’s mother put on black and his father grew out his beard. Barlaam watched from the corner with grief as they made the kolyva and put the vodka and bread next to the boy’s photo. As the days past, Barlaam placated his guilt by concluding that the boy was fantastically dimwitted and would have had very little chance of success in life (God bless the child, but he really was an unintelligent boy); furthermore, as Barlaam saw it, the boy was with the angels now and free from Cherepovets, a miserable place in the wintertime even for saints who, being dead, are not subject to thermal sensation. “Yes,” Barlaam reasoned, “in the end, this was not at all bad, and I am most certain it will not affect my chances for advancement.”
As Barlaam neared the home of the babushka, he put his contempt for the Council out of his mind and imagined that he was in Vladivostok. He envisioned soaring over a glistening Ussuri Bay in June and picking wildflowers from the hills in September. He imagined sprinkling black pepper over fresh scallops in a seaside café, and blessing a fleet of commercial vessels before its maiden voyage. Barlaam reveled in these blissful images and slowly opened his eyes. Upon seeing the cold, industrial city below, his heart dropped, and the reality of his situation weighed heavily on his soul. And for the first time since rescuing the babushka, he noticed the smell of cabbage soup emanating from her now unconscious body. He brought his nose to the back of her head, sniffed it several times, and grimaced. He surveyed the babushka’s shabby crimson headscarf and the many flecks of mud caked on her weathered wool coat. “Can’t you take care of yourself, you louse?” he thought to himself. Her whole being repulsed Barlaam, and all the frustration he was feeling was channeled into the helpless babushka from Cherepovets. In a moment of insanity, Barlaam became unable to appreciate the nature of his conduct, and with the rage of a demon, he powerfully jerked the arm around the babushka’s neck toward his chest, popping the head off her limp body.
Barlaam’s regret was immediate. “Dear God!” he exclaimed as the body slipped instantly from his arms, and groceries spilled quietly into the night sky. The mass of flesh in a wool coat landed on the pavement with a loud thud, and moments later a barrage of sausages rained down on top of it. A startled bitch with drooping teats cautiously approached the motionless lump. It sniffed the body meticulously, then selfishly gobbled up the bits of pink meat strewn across the road. Meanwhile, Barlaam juggled the old woman’s head. He nearly had it, but in the end, it slipped through his fingers and he was left holding only the crimson headscarf. The head fell peacefully downward, drifting lightly in the winter breeze. Finally, far below Barlaam’s trembling hands, it ricocheted violently off an iron gate and disappeared into a snowbank.
Distressed by yet another debacle, Barlaam flung the headscarf into the darkness and hastened back to his bell tower in the city’s central church. He alighted on a stone window ledge and hopped into his modest quarters. The creaky wooden floorboards of the old tower bowed beneath his weight. From his simple straw bed he grabbed a pillow and screamed into it until his lungs were empty. He somberly tossed the pillow onto the floor and plopped down into a green velvet armchair. Surrounded by piles of dusty books, boxes of candles, and an aged cross with one of its crossbeams missing, Barlaam sighed. “I’ll never hear the end of this one,” he thought, shaking his head and letting out an incredulous laugh. Leaning the chair back onto two legs until his head rested against the whitewashed wall, Barlaam surveyed the icons of the great saints adorning his little room. Dozens of meek faces, dimly illuminated by flickering candles, stared out from their wooden frames. Barlaam fixed his gaze on the weathered Vsevolod of Pskov, whose chipped black eyes betrayed a look of disappointment. “What do you know about tribulation?” Barlaam snapped at the icon, “you were a prince in life.” The miserable saint threw his head back and stared blankly into the rafters. “What am I doing with myself?” he repeated aloud several times. Pursing his lips, Barlaam became quiet, and his mind went into deep thought. Nearly an hour passed before Barlaam came back to reality. When he did, he slapped his knee and resolutely concluded, “I’d be perfectly satisfied with Vladivostok.”
The heavy bells above his bed suddenly swung into motion and their bronze clappers announced the beginning of the evening service. Barlaam leaned forward in his chair, and reluctantly went to the nave of the church to receive his nightly offering of candles.