…we are made a spectacle unto the world, and to the
angels, and to men. We are fools, for Christ’s sake.
————————————–—I Corinthians 4:9-10
Part the First: Spin, Beat, Spin
LISTEN, wicked children! When une jeune slut-fille dirties her own halo, simple folk cast stones, and it takes the baroque and obstinate solemnity of God to bring them to their knees before a creature of such dire humility. Pelagia, born during the pre-revolutionary era of Tsar Alexander I, was a scoundrel-saint, a staretz who flipped a convent full of pent-up, quarrelsome women on its head and put up with having her vile, unwashed feet kissed by a failing empire of wonder-struck pilgrims.
In 1807, little Pelagia Ivanovna Surin Serebrenikova slipped like a worm from her mother’s fleshy cabbage-cunt in the village of Arzamass, two hundred and fifty miles east of Moscow, that medieval Byzantine city abandoned by Peter the Great in favor of a new capital built atop drained swamps and islands by the sea, an imperial opulence of palaces known poetically as the “Palmyra of the North,” and more prosaically as Saint Petersburg.
Better looking than average, with strong teeth and an exceptional mind, the child Pelagia Ivanovna Surin Serebrenikova fell ill one day and lay senseless as a stone upon her pallet of straw. Upon arising, little Pela was quite gone, and in her place stood a lazy good-for-nothing who planted herself in the back of the family vegetable garden, twirling this way and that, hoisting her skirts shamelessly high above her head. Disgrace! wept the mother, seeing her child’s fine looks and future fortune squandered by this abdication of wits. No longer the apple of her mother’s eye, but an idiota! saloi! yurodivye! Go ahead, she wailed, beat the girl, hammer at her with fists or switches, pelt her with stewed turnips, fire away at her with macerated apples. She will only whirl on, a brainless top, dervish sport for her six slovenly stepbrothers and drunken stepfather.
But Pelagia spun upward into a blonde giantess, bewitching all of Arzamass with her vertiginous beauty. Suitors lined up like cannon, like muskrats, like grave-borne communicants. Sick to death of her nitwit daughter, Pela’s mother spun her towards the very first muskrat, an Arzamassian upstart with buck teeth and a russet rind of bristly mustache, eager to take Pelagia into his own hands. Sergei Vasileivich was a peculiar fellow, slightly consumptive, a military reject who puttered away, constructing miniature earthen fortresses patrolled by motionless battalions of toy soldiers made of wax. Disciplinary lapses in this tiny army were severely punished.
Sergei once conducted a mock interrogatory trial in which a field rat was found guilty of gnawing off the wax head of one of his finest officers; the rodent was summarily hanged to the tune of Vasileivich’s improvisatory drum roll and made-up tune, “Alas, there thou hangest…!”
On his wedding day, wearing a handmade linen shirt and too-tight, red military-style breeches, with his pointy snout and garland of gourd blossoms on his disheveled hair, Sergei failed to notice how his bride, towering over him, kept surreptitiously watering the cloth posies on her dress with weak spoonfuls of horehound tea. Gripped by lust, monstrously priapic, Sergei didn’t care a fig for Pelagia’s watering antics and trundled his bride away in a collapsing wooden cart, steering the reins of a borrowed nag with one hand and grabbing handfuls of tea-wetted flesh with the other, as was his right under God.
Part the Second: Dead Children, Holy Indicators, a Pillow of Iron Shackles
Clap hands over ears, little devils! From this disastrous union, Pelagia bore two sons in quick succession, each of whom perished. Rumors flew through Arzamass that she had first squeezed and smothered the infants between her gargantuan breasts, then flung them, salted and boiled, no better than suckling runts, into Sergei’s favorite pork and parsnip porridge.
One winter’s morning, Sergei’s mother came to fetch the unhappy couple and take them to Father Seraphim of Sarov, a man of saintly reputation. As the unlucky Sergei Vasileivich and his mother waited in the monastery’s bare, freezing anteroom, Seraphim (reputed model for Father Zosima in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s enduring masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov) closeted the giantess in his cell, where they prayed together for long, suspect hours before he came out and commanded Sergei to leave this child of God alone. She was divine real estate. She was His.
Absolved, Pelagia spun ever faster about Arzamass, half-naked, in woolen rags, begging and giving alms away by day, praying and weeping in the Napolny churchyard by night. God’s cuckold, Sergei took matters into his own hands and delivered his knucklehead wife to a monastery in Kiev for an exorcism. Returning home two days after his wife due to a pesky bout of gonorrhea, he discovered that Pelagia had given away all of his belongings, down to his scarlet wedding breeches, miniature fortifications, toy soldiers, and his favorite pewter spoon. Chanting I am unafraid of you, I am unafraid of you, Sergei seized his wife by two fingers and carried her out of doors where he chained her by a rusted length of iron shackle to the side of his sacked and worthless house. There thou hangest, he cried, just as he had with the doomed rat, and improvised a military drum roll. But Pelagia escaped three times—unaware that she would one day use that same length of iron chain for her anchorite’s pillow.
Now everyone in Arzamass began to take a turn at beating sense into Pelagia, even the mayor and the police constable, for it was believed she housed demons, and if these infernal imps could be driven out with stones, sticks, whips, stewed turnips, and rotting melons, Pelagia might yet be an exemplary wife, might cook, clean, and scissor out her legs for Sergei at night after all the other chores were done. But beatings proved useless, and what was worse, the mayor had a dream that set the entire village on edge, a dream warning of divine retribution to anyone who laid a finger on Pelagia. Meanwhile, Sergei had happened upon a village girl with a face and limbs far plainer than Pelagia’s but who could walk in a perfectly straight line from here to there.
Sergei spun Pela back to her mother. Damaged goods, he muttered. She was a freak and ruining his life, and he had the chance to marry a plain stupid girl who would ask no questions and bear him children out of her sturdy, obedient cabbage. The stepfather and six brothers warily resumed their beatings, while the stepsister plotted murder, convincing an acquaintance to take aim, yet when the fellow missed his target, he turned the gun upon himself, for what had he done but try to put a bullet in a living saint? The curse of Pelagia lay like a pall over the entire village. No one outside the family dared harm her for fear of having his own skin flayed. Her mother hauled her off one last time to Seraphim of Sarov who repeated himself. Pelagia must not be harmed, she was God’s Fool, Seraphim’s Seraphima, and would one day help many climb the ladder to heaven. Half-dead with disappointment, the mother prayed violently for a miracle. Relief arrived in the form of three abbesses passing through Arzamass, who agreed to take the girl back with them to Diveyevo, a forest community in the province of Nizhegorod founded by Seraphim. The mother leapt at this chance to be rid of her spinning top of a daughter, and at last Seraphim’s prophecy that Matrushka, or Mother, as he had taken to calling Pelagia, would one day help many, began to take shape.
Part the Third: Dung, Cockroaches, Frogs
Turn a blind eye while looking both ways. Cross over now, petits enfants! Pelagia was rejected by Diveyevo’s nuns, scourged and beaten as she twirled about breaking windows with stones and generally acting completely out of her head. Abbess Xenia assigned her a companion who beat her with a stouter stick than anyone, yet unlike ordinary people, Pelagia rejoiced in her chastisements, for the Holy Fool’s fate is to turn the universe upside-down, dodge moral lassitude and rise above the Great Human Myopic. A Fool-for-God liberates herself through humiliation, climbs heavenward up a steep, lonely incline of lunacy.
All at once, Sister Folly stopped twirling and settled into a routine. Squatting in the courtyard of the convent, Pelagia chipped a trough in the dirt, a mock catacomb, using a spoon stolen from the trapeza or refectory. Filling the niche with manure, she sat down in shit, spooning dung into her gorgeous bosom. When her first companion died, she was given another, Anna Gerasimovna, with whom Pelagia would live out the next forty-seven years in a plain wooden cell on the edge of the forest, at a slight distance from the convent. For a time, Pelagia collected large stones, rolling them, willy-nilly, into the cell she shared with Anna. She slept in the dirt by the open door, stepped upon, spat at, taunted. Like naughty children, Diveyevo’s nuns devised sly tricks and impious pranks to torment their demented sister. No longer was the question how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but how many evil nuns can jump up and down upon the prostrate body of Pelagia as she howls and whimpers with delight? How scalding can the well-water be that they dribble over her head, drenching the foul, unwashed tree roots of her once-yellow hair?
Done with hauling rocks, Pelagia began sailing bricks into a murky frog pond, wading in up to her broad hips before hurling the bricks back onto shore again. She didn’t mind the army of emboldened frogs who hopped into her cell and hunkered, croaking voluptuously, in damp, foul corners. One day, Anna, who had had enough, swept the frogs, like so many green, slimy doorknobs, into a pile, tossed them out by their legs, then locked Pelagia inside. Holy Folly retaliated by pulling the door off its hinges, setting it on fire, and sitting in the pond overnight. After that, the two women dwelt in their forest cell, undoored, exposed to brutal Russian winters and insect-plagued summers. Hear, too, that Pelagia never bathed or trimmed her huge, filthy finger- or toenails, and was impervious to cockroaches, those shiny, black revulsions of the devil, skittering across the unhygienic humps and hummocks, the hairy tussock, of her unwashed body.
In time, a succession of miracles began to occur. Anna witnessed Pelagia deliberately jump upon a board with a great iron nail sticking up from it, driving the rusted point straight through her high, naked arch. Rushing off to slap together a black-bread and onion poultice, Anna returned to find no mark at all, not even a red dot, on Pelagia’s stinking, sprouting potato of a foot.
As soon as Pelagia took to roundly thrashing herself with switches and sticks, another Holy Fool, a fellow Arzamassian, Theodore Mikhailovich Solovyov, showed up, and with Anna looking on (terrified but willing to be glorified by martyrdom) the two, matched in girth, began a fierce dueling of sticks and warring words. Like actors in some divine improvisation, they fought with clubs and branches, hurling insults like flaming javelins, like lightning bolts, as they chased one another back and forth through the cell and into the Church of the Nativity cemetery.
When the bruised and muddied Pelagia began uttering streams of pure clairvoyance, pilgrims straggled, then elbowed their way into Diveyevo from far and near to be blessed, healed, beaten, and screamed at. She predicted dates of birth and, more often, death, and on the day Sergei Vasileivich, some hundreds of miles distant, fell mortally ill, Pelagia mimed his agony and howled like a wolf the instant his soul broke free from his spent, vainglorious body. Even the tsar, dressed in the clichéd disguise of a woodcutter, made his way on foot through the forest to seek counsel from the reputed saint, later claiming she was the one person who would talk with him forthrightly and without guile. Still, when she warned him of his downfall, he did not listen, which proves that even in the presence of a seer and a saint, people hear only what they want to hear.
On they came in droves, day and night, seeking out the vile, stinksome creature sitting on her felt mat, asking their Matrushka what they should do about this or that or the other. To one she might scream “Hussy!” and deliver a stinging slap to the cheek along with a riddle, to another she might coo a lullaby, tender a silky caress. Wealth and rank offered no insulation from her unpredictable clairvoyance. When Venerable Vladyka Nectary paid an unannounced visit, Pelagia stood waiting faithfully for him in a blinding hailstorm, yet when he named a replacement for Diveyevo’s abbess, she boxed both his ears, making of him a devotee, her faithful one.
Eating only raw mushrooms, Pelagia hoarded the many offerings of sweets she received. Candies, cakes, prosphora, or holy breads, all were stuffed into a lumpy homemade sack, or “storehouse,” which hung from her neck, bending her by its dulcet, rotting weight, nearly to the ground. In Pelagia’s final years, Anna Gerasimovna began to wake nights to find their cell on holy fire with the terrifying radiance of supernatural visitors. Father Seraphim, many years dead and a venerated saint, arrived to administer the sacraments, and Anna claimed to have seen, with her own eyes, an angelic being descend through the roof, whisk Pelagia off in its alien arms, and then return her, babbling incoherently, at dawn.
In the winter of 1879, Anna Gerasimovna woke one morning to find Pelagia outside, standing near the edge of the forest, in extreme austerity, an orant, arms upraised, wearing only her sarafan, a long, sleeveless undergarment, its thin hem nailed by ice to the snowy crown of earth. A caryatid made of flesh and ice, Pelagia upheld, for one night, the harsh, sorrowing, human world.
On January 30, 1884, she contracted a high fever and, enclasped by a dry, withering rosary of nuns, seemed one moment to battle invisible demons, the next to be lifted up in beatific rapture. At the last, she raised her head a little, its golden nimbus stinking of manure, frogs, and rotten cakes, cried O, Mother of God! then fell back, asleep in the Lord, upon her pillow of iron shackles. An ocean of candles flared up throughout Russia. Panakhidas, memorials, were held everywhere, and overnight, painted icons, mosaics, carved panels of ivory, and cloisonné enamels, images of Pelagia, Fool-for-Christ, sprang up like stars. Thousands mourned Matrushka, their holy mother. Thousands spun in keening ecstasy.
In 1927, Communist soldiers, neither toys nor made of wax, closed down the monastery at Sarov, the convent at Diveyevo, and desecrated Pelagia’s cell and grave. Late in the 1980s, with Gorbachev’s perestroika policy, (An emperor! Look! Dissolving his own empire!) both churches were restored and reopened. Today, anyone can take the train from Moscow to Diveyevo, walk the same paths as Pelagia, look up at the same empty sky and admire the forest, little changed.
According to legend, a seventh-century pagan chieftain named Damon, from County Tyrone, Ireland, went mad upon the death of his wife and decided to assuage his grief by marrying his own daughter. Horrified by her father’s advances, Dymphna, in the company of her elderly priest and confessor, Saint Gerebernus, fled across the sea to Belgium. The two took refuge and lived as hermits in an oratory in Gheel, in the province of Antwerp. Damon’s spies tracked the pair down, and after ordering the death of the old priest, the king took up his own sword and beheaded his disobedient child. Locals entombed the two in a nearby cave, and in the thirteenth century, when the sarcophagi were discovered, healings from mental illness and epilepsy began to take place, the most miraculous recorded between 1604 and 1668. Saint Dymphna, virgin and martyr, became Gheel’s patron saint of insanity, of mental illness, of sleepwalking, of nervous disorders, of incest victims, of those possessed, of princesses, of epileptics and runaways. Images of Dymphna depict her being beheaded by her father or praying in a cloud surrounded by a group of lunatics bound with golden chains, or as a princess with a sword, holding the devil, fettered, on a leash. Today, Dymphna’s remains are in a silver reliquary in Gheel’s church of Saint Dymphna. Her feast day is May 15. Under her patronage, Gheel’s inhabitants are known for the care they give the mentally ill. An infirmary was first built in the thirteenth century, and today, the city boasts a first-class sanitarium, one of the largest, most efficient colonies for lunatics in the world, and the first to start a peculiar but strangely curative program. First, the insane are admitted to the sanitarium for observation, and then they are placed in the homes of Gheel’s farmers and city residents where they are treated kindly, welcomed as family members and watched over without ever being aware of it.
Today, in Gheel, you will find the insane living side by side with the sane, eating at the same tables, working in pastry shops, car repair shops, driving buses, and quite often standing in crosswalks, holding out signs to stop traffic so Gheel’s children can safely cross their streets to school.
(The tale of Saint Dymphna, a narrative variant of the popular legend of a king who desires to marry his own daughter, is without historical foundation.)
On October 11, 2007, a young man, nude but for one black sock, strolled serenely through Times Square. While speaking into his cell phone, the “curly-haired hipster,” later identified as Josh Drimmer, age twenty-six, a playwright and Yale alum from Greenport, Brooklyn, zigzagged back and forth along Seventh Avenue between West Forty-seventh and Forty-eighth Streets. After exiting Tad’s Steakhouse off Forty-seventh Street, where patrons reported seeing a naked man jump up and down on one of the restaurant’s tables, Mr. Drimmer was arrested and handcuffed by police. When his clothing, including a pair of plaid boxers, a blue polo shirt, brown, ankle-high boots and a second black sock, were delivered to him, Drimmer refused to put them on. “He was a strange guy,” said a former college acquaintance. “Crazy. He would do weird things. Like eat scraps of food people had left around for a couple of hours.” Following his arrest, Mr. Drimmer was carted off to Bellevue Hospital. “I have no knowledge of why any of this has happened,” said his father from his home in Chicago.
Adapted from the New York Post, October 12, 2007
Objects, while appearing solid, are 99.9999 percent empty space. Chaos directs us to a higher order. Past and future do not exist. Dimensions are multiple and time can be traveled. These are the teachings of physics.
Be a spire of light! Go unwashed, speak in tongues.
Idiota! saloi! yuradivye!
Look both ways!
This story was selected for Best of the Small Presses 2009.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.