A Study in Human Weakness
A short while ago, I was walking down a muddy road in a muddy country in a muddy summer. People were saying this was the worst summer for mosquitoes they'd ever seen in these swamp-ridden reaches.
People had been saying that every other summer, at least, for time out of mind. But when the mosquitoes of summer were gone and the six or eight months of frost began, they instantly forgot what had been bad about the summer to focus again on cold, darkness, hunger and a mind-numbing boredom that would explode, in equal parts, into religious fervour and drunken rows and rutting.
It was a benighted land, and it had long been considered a punishment to be sent there.
They had need of good musicians there, for their short, frenzied spring and summer revels as well as their dark carousals throughout the time of frost, and I had been spending a few years in this land of atonement and hopelessness that so mirrored my own soul.
I was drifting to the west now, that summer I want to tell you about. I was coming down from the mountains with a vague thought of seeing the sea again. I had wandered long, and I was missing the shores.
It was a bright day, and I was alone.
Ahead of me, always one bend of the road further on, one of the countless religious drifters of this country was walking. And he was making a good pace, too, as I never seemed to be able to catch up with him. He was just a tall, dark, shaggy creature that disappeared around the stand of birches or larches beside the next turn of our way. Still, I was not allowed for one moment to forget about him, as he kept bellowing hymns at the top of his voice. Mostly, these pilgrims would pray quietly and incessantly under their breath, but this one sang happily, loudly and falsely into the beautiful sunny summer's day.
Now, don't get me wrong, I have heard countless ways of human music, many of them strange beyond weirdness. Not far from there, I had heard tribesmen singing with two voices at once, and I had an ear to admire their art. But I could always discern bad music from good, and this fellow was as bad a musician as they come.
He was cruelly murdering the whole liturgy of his complicated religion, and then he attacked some pious folk-songs for a change, one of them even based on a melody I'd made up when I first came to that country.
I was so relieved when he finally stopped his howling towards evening that I ran straight into him, resting around the next corner, by the bank of a stream that ran icily down from the mountains. It exuded gentle coolness, and was gratefully free of insect life, which probably was the reason why this strannik was resting here.
He was sitting on the ground, his backpack open beside him, building a fire. A chipped enamel water kettle lay beside the improvised fireplace. He was going to make tea.
"Good evening, my dear boy! May God and the holy virgin bless you!", he boomed at me. He was about thirty years old, as men count, tall and large-boned. His big nose was sitting somewhat crookedly in his face, and his hands were huge and work-worn. As were his boots. His hair and beard were growing any old how and had that commonplace colour that cannot be properly described.
His eyes, when he peered up at me, were grey as mine, and piercing with lively curiosity and heated intent.
"You have a fiddle", he stated; "which is a good thing, as all music is pleasing to God. I haven't heard a decent gypsy fiddler in ages".
Ages, to him, might mean anything from a few weeks to a few months. I didn't bother to correct him; I often passed for a gypsy among these people. Among the gypsies, I had another story to fall back on that made them permit me to pass as one of theirs among ordinary people. They thought me a wandering, dispossessed prince of some sort.
With time, I had learned to keep my stories simple, to stay as close to who and what I really was as the times permitted. Having to remember many different sets of lies turned out as irksome as boring within a few centuries.
I said nothing, merely picked up the kettle to fetch water while he got the fire going.
He made tea while I got out the loaf of bread I'd been given in the last village. He dug out a rather suspicious-looking hunk of cheese from his backpack, while I found some early apples from my satchel. He steepled his ungainly thumb and two uncouth fingers to make the sign of the cross over our meal, murmuring blessings and incantations over it before sharing it out between us.
He wore a long, loose dark shirt, and a large, rough wooden cross on his chest that he had no right to.
I always pitied men for their religions, for their fervent beliefs in things that they could, ultimately, never know for certain.
I knew. I had been born in what they now weakly remembered as earthly paradise, or even heaven; and I had walked among those whom their week memories had marred to gods, saints and angels. Their attempts at understanding or remembering evoked my pity, or my distaste, depending on whatever shape their attempts took at the time.
"I am Brother Grigori", he announced when he had filled his cup and mine with the scalding tea. I didn't answer at first, just hung my nose above the dark brew. It smelt earthy, smoky, comforting somehow, and heartening. I tasted, carefully, and it was bitter, powerful, and had a quiet strength.
"Good tea", I remarked.
He laughed, showing strong teeth like a horse. "Glad you found something to say at last, my dear boy", he said. "Now tell me your name – I want to know who I'm breaking bread with. And then we shall eat, and then you shall give us some music".
"I am called Makari", I said. I always took care to find myself a name that was, in some way, close to one of my original names. Most languages of men offered me one option or another of that sort.
"What a good name, a God-fearing name, a happy name!", he declared enthusiastically around a mouthful of bread. "My own starets back at Verkhoturye was called Makari, a good old wise and God-fearing man who made me into who I am".
He stretched out his arm, steepled his fingers again, and blessed me with a wealth of hodge-podge holy phrasing. His clothes exuded a slightly rancid smell of used man, mingled with old incense and the smoke of many candles and camp-fires.
I carefully calmed my face and cast down my eyes as not to offend him, and only went on eating when he was done with his pious ministrations and started talking again.
"From there, I have wandered the length and breadth of this land, my dear boy. I have gone as far as the Holy Mountain, but I wasn't made out for the good life they have there. I have work to do for our holy virgin yet, let me tell you that, dear little Makari". He put my assumed name into one of those obnoxious diminutives his language is so exceedingly rich in; this one was so cloyingly endearing I had to steel myself not to wince.
"I have walked from monastery to monastery, praying to all the holy icons I could find, sitting at the feet of all the holy teachers I could find, collecting their wisdom. I have walked thousands of miles on foot, in the heat and in the cold, and I never once touched my own flesh!"
Now I truly winced. I have never been able to fathom what drives men to endlessly talk and talk about the personal affairs of their bodies, boasting their strength or their chastity or even, as this one did, both. It never fails to evince a slight distaste in me, or even, as this one did, a strong revulsion. I mean, honestly, who want to know these things about a perfect stranger?
I can tell you, I really didn't.
But that was not be. He was off now, and he was telling me gleefully about all the sin he had witnessed and been tempted with, and the way he had risen above it. He was not only fascinated by it as all men are, he was obsessed with it to the point of insanity.
"What do you do when you meet real gypsies on the road?", he then asked, suddenly interrupting himself.
I was taking the first sip from my third cup of tea and didn't answer at first.
"Don't play the innocent, my dear little Makari; you're as impious as a student from the university, and no real gypsy ever would be".
"This tea you make is really good, Grigori, and so is your gift for looking through people, it seems. The gypsies, to answer your first question, know about me and afford me their protection when I need it. They respect a lamentable past best forgotten, as they respect a gift for making music".
"Don't boast, my dear boy; a sinful pride is much, much worse than a spot of the fleshly. Hubris is the bane of mankind, and rebellion of our will and reason against God shall prove our undoing".
Not only mankind, Grigori, I thought wistfully, putting down my teacup and getting my fiddle from the battered case.
I stood, poised the bow, and launched into my wide gypsy repertory.
The effect on Grigori was utterly bewildering.
He squatted beside the fire for a while, lost in the music I was making; then suddenly he jumped up and started dancing, frenziedly, falling ungainly through he gathering darkness, jumping lustily over our fire, he whooped like a happy child and wheeled around like one possessed by one of the many demons of his faith.
Finally, he crashed to the ground beside our fire. "Stop", he wheezed. "Stop, my dear boy; your music has such fire, it might make me dance myself to death. The gypsies have taught you very well".
I had been playing with these people since time out of mind, and the giving and taking had always been mutual, but I wasn't going to tell him that.
So I put away my fiddle, got myself another cup of half-cold tea and said quietly, "Rarely anyone reacts to my fiddle the way you did just now, so don't blame me for making you".
He looked up at me in the firelight. "Rarely anyone, then, has ears in their head to listen to your art, and fire in his soul to answer to what you do. You are truly touched by some power, my dear little Makari, but if it is holy or evil is not for a stupid peasant like Grigori Efimovich to say".
I made no answer, merely drank up the last of the tea, huddled in my coat and fell silent. After a while, I heard raucous snores from his side of the fire.
In the morning, he suddenly jumped up from where he had been sleeping, without a glance at me he cast off all his clothes and ran towards the stream, kneeling down in it so the water reached to his chest, then immersing himself totally, praying loudly all the time.
I decided to ignore his pious antics and went on resting, but when he started singing again, I found I couldn't. It was just too awful for words.
So I shrugged off my coat, quickly divested myself of my other garments and waded in beside him. He was ladling water over himself and chanting kyrie eleiseon in an endless loop. It sounded horrible.
He was strong and muscular, and utterly human in a totally commonplace way. He had the body of a healthy, hardworking peasant, the legs of a hardy wanderer – and the voice of a braying donkey. When he shook the water from his eyes, I took him by his dripping mane of hair and hissed at him, "If you stop that noise, I will sing for you – but if you don't, I will have to leave at once, and you shall never hear me play again. Your singing voice is loathsome".
He stared up at me, taking in the ease with which I stood in the strong, swift stream, and the utter unconcern with which I sat down on a large, smooth rock in the cold water.
"Sing the kyrie", he ordered, never batting an eyelash at my strange behaviour. And I did, and he went on with his ablutions, murmuring to himself while he did.
Finally, he was done, crossed himself and stood to wade ashore. A slippery stone, though, and the unexpected strength of an eddy conspired to bowl him over, and the water pulled him downstream.
With a few long leaps, I was after him, catching him by his swirling beard and hair and fishing him unceremoniously from the stream. I cannot let a man drown before my eyes, even if his singing voice is more foul than that of any orc of Morgoth.
"I was told I will die in the water, but not yet, in God's unfathomable wisdom", he said by the way of thanks, wading ashore at last and shaking himself like a dog. And then he started praying again, expressing his general gratefulness about creation, and said no more about it.
I put on my clothes, made tea, and waited for him to finish his devotions and get dressed.
I would walk faster today, I decided, and overtake him. He was quite insane.
Finally, he came and held his cup out for some tea.
He drank from it, and then looked at me again.
"Will you go on singing my songs for me while we go on to Kazan?", he asked outright.
"Who says I am going to Kazan?"
"Where else should you go, in this place, for a musician to find some bread?"
"Anywhere, really", I said, although I had indeed planned to visit that town on my way to the sea.
"Pride is a sin, more deathly than lust and adultery and the greed for riches!", he suddenly shouted, quite out of his mind again. He sat straight upright, staring at me, spittle flying from his mouth. "If you think yourself so high above the rest of us, how shall you ever attain the atonement searching for which you wander as a gypsy among the dispossessed – as you said? You have no humility, you sneer at my fight with the flesh and despise me as rustic and superstitious! None of this concerns you, my dear little Makari, and instead of being blessed as your name implies, you are cursed! Is there nothing in the world to bring you low so you may rise again and be strong? God casteth you down to raise you again", he intoned fervently, "and before you can know joy at his grace, you will have to know repentance, and to know repentance you first have to know your sin!"
I sat back and looked at him impassively. He was babbling, but among his ravings there were little stabs in the dark that stung.
"And your sin must be immense and unbearable to you, for you to tower so highly above my little problems of a fleshly nature, for you to so raise yourself above anything that is of the flesh! For did not the good Creator also create our human flesh, and he created it as a source of weakness, but also of joy and strength to us, and to each of us he gave their own nature – and are you not denying creation in thinking yourself so totally beyond the flesh?", he went on preaching.
" I constantly fight the flesh to transcend it, to get even closer to the holy – but you merely deny it and despise it, considering yourself beyond it".
His obsession was becoming obnoxious. To some men, the world is filled and populated with their own lusts; they are unable to perceive anything else. They even find them reflected in everybody they encounter.
I rose to go.
He jumped up after me and grabbed me. Although he had bathed – of sorts – his clothes still gave off an unpleasant whiff.
"Has there never been a woman, sweet and strong and terrible like an army with its weapons, to tempt you from your loneliness?", he asked, leering into my face, peering closely at me to glean a reaction.
I made to pull free.
"Or, seeing you are finely made like a woman yourself, was there perhaps a man that you desired, and that desired you back?", he murmured, coldly calculating in his ravings – anything to get a rise out of me.
I pulled lose.
"Surely, a man of your – persuasion would not recommend unnatural lusts as a means of healing my soul?", I sneered.
He seemed to believe he'd struck home.
"If chastity is my own way", he roared, "I would not impose it on everybody else! You have to know the power of the flesh to then feel the power abstinence gives you. And do not condemn so easily any sin as unnatural – are we not all sinners, and has not God created each of our natures with their own permutations to distinguish between the one and the other of his creatures, and does he not equally love each of us, despite whatever their sin may be?", he declaimed loudly. "If each is created according to his own nature, where can the unnaturalness of one sin lie – or how can one frailty of our soul be more natural than another? Is it indeed more natural to murder many in battle for a self-proclaimed justice than to love, wherever that love may have fallen?"
Deep from the well of time, I remembered faces – the faces of my brother and his lover, staring at me with equal fear and disdain at my possible disapproval.
"Yes!", cried the wood preacher fervently, believing to have found an inroad. "Love is the strongest force of sin and the greatest gift of God at the same time – and the greatest sin in love is to deny it, my dear little Makari".
I wished he would stop mangling my name so.
I remembered my brother and his lover, staring at me with defiance when I'd walked in on them, having sung aside the bolt on their door for an urgent message innumerable long years ago. I thought of my brother often, but I had not thought of the two of them, the way I had found them that morning, for a very long time. And I had not thought of my brother's unfathomable grief, not long afterwards, when his lover had died. Only after that, really, had he become so hell-bent on destruction, and pulled me down that bloody path with him.
Grigori grabbed me again. "Oh, have I finally touched something in you, indeed?", he sneered. "Who was he".
"It's not about me, it's about my brother – and our cousin, his lover", I replied to disabuse him of anything he might be making up in that overactive, sticky little mind of his. The language we spoke, luckily, left no doubt to the gender of the cousin I had mentioned.
He laughed. "That must have created some uproar in your family".
"They all more or less ignored it. What must not be, cannot be", I said, with a bitterness that astonished even myself. It was so long since I had truly grieved for their fate.
"Brothers and sisters are precious, an irreplaceable gift from God", he mused. "I had a brother once. His name was Dmitri. He drowned when we were still children, but I will never forget him. Can you make your peace with your brother and his lover even now?"
He was talking almost coherently.
"I would have to die first. They have been dead much longer that you can possibly imagine. I can only hope that they have found some peace together beyond this world at last".
Grigori smiled, almost kindly. "So there is something that you believe in after all, dear little Makari the Unbeliever?"
I wished he would stop calling me that.
"I don't believe in it"; I said darkly. "I know".
"You know, hmph?", he laughed. "What a rare grace from God, to know where all others must cling to faith. Well, you shall go to Kazan with me then, and light candles for the holy virgin, pleading with her to take pity on the souls of your brother and your cousin, if you know what afterlife they are in, eh?"
Just when I started listening to him, I thought regretfully, he stopped making sense again. What use would their paltry little religion be for me? Where he believed, I knew, and therefore I despaired.
I had lived with men and avoided them, I had fought them, occasionally helped them and perhaps even loved them for time immemorial, but rarely had any of them been so perceptive as to hit me right where it hurt after having known me – of sorts – for less than twelve hours. This Grigori had an eye for other's weaknesses and dug right in, tenacious as a terrier hound. He would certainly make both enemies and friends with practised ease, and in generous abundance.
And still, he was talking utter gibberish.
He was annoying to the extreme.
He grabbed me by the face and stared right into my eyes.
"You shall come to Kazan with me, and even if you know it won't help your brother's and cousin's souls, perhaps it might help your own, in some way". He never even doubted I would follow his orders.
I tried to pull away, and he held on to my hair, and then he grabbed my right ear and pulled it around so he could look at it closely.
"What happened to your ear?", he suddenly enquired. "There are scars along the top".
"A horse bit it", I said wearily, the age-old excuse I had to make towards some over-observant human about once every long year.
Grigori jerked my head around by the hair and quickly peered at my other ear, shoving his large nose right against my neck. "Both of them?", he laughed.
He let go of me and turned to pack his things and extinguish the fire, utterly unconcerned whether I might leave, and not truly interested in the answer now he'd asked the question. And indeed, he never ever while I knew him asked that dreaded question other men and women had asked that come too close to me: "What are you?", with that awe-struck intonation of the word what.
He asked me for my name, though. That was in Kazan, when we were at the monastery where the holy icon he wished to visit was kept. It had not taken us long to get there, as we both could move very quickly; I had been astonished how well he kept up with me, never despairing at any pace I might set. And I had been singing his songs for him as we went, as I'd promised, so I never had to hear his dreadful singing voice again.
There were clouds of women, young and old, in that church, paying homage to that picture of the only Queen of Heaven the weak memory of their religion let them have, that almost blasphemous and unrecognisable distortion of the powerful, beautiful Varda I had once seen with my own bodily eyes. And then there were a few men among them, like Grigori, spiritual seekers, chasers after a power they knew nothing about, and could never hope to understand.
I felt so sad for all of them.
I leaned on a pillar and watched, and he let me alone.
Finally, Grigori turned to me, to suggest, as I knew, lighting useless candles for souls that were, as far as I could fathom, long disposed with by the Judge.
"You know it's all pointless, hmph?", he growled at me when he reached my side, having swam through all the commotion. "You will not light superstitious little fires for those you know cannot be reached by them, hmph?"
"So, I will do it instead if you balk at debasing yourself like that, in your despicable pride; perhaps you'll see the light then. Tell me, what were their names?"
I don't know what induced me to tell the truth. "My brother was called Maitimo, and our cousin was named Findekano".
"So I now know who I will have to pray for, my dear little Makari", he said again, using that awful nickname again.
"Stop calling me that!" I had enough of Grigori's mannerisms, and was wondering what had induced me not to leave him standing that first morning – not for the first time.
"So, what is your name then?", he asked with the meekest voice.
"Makalauro", I spat.
He just grinned at me and turned to go.
As I was watching all these men and women in their church, Grigori among them on his fool's errand for something so long gone and done with, I realised a truth about the difference between men and us.
We know, and they remember but faintly; we have certainty, and they cling to increasingly absurd beliefs, we can clearly see where we are going, and they make it all up as they go along. We are contained by creation, they reach beyond it. When they make up their beliefs, they can create new truths. Their bodies sometimes seem shoddily made, but their spirits reach where neither elves nor Valar can look. This is what was meant, long ago, when they said that the Firstborn would one day envy the mortals.
Grigori could hope for things that I could only know weren't true, and not look beyond.
So I went to help him light his candles, and when I stepped up quietly beside him, watching him peer intently at the big brass stand bursting with flaming tapers, feeling for the holes to put them in with his fingers, I realised a small but funny truth: so shoddily made are human bodies that, by some celestial irony, this highly perceptive human was as nearsighted as a bat – and probably didn't even realise it himself.
This so fell in with my ruminations from moments ago, I laughed quietly, startling the worshippers around us, but not Grigori, who merely shoved a bunch of candles into my hands and continued murmuring his never-changing prayers.
I lit the candles, one after the other, merely thinking of how much humans, after millennia of knowing them, could still astonish me. I made a conscious effort then to remember those faces after I'd opened that bolt on them, and my brother listlessly on the ground, too grieved even to cry. I hoped they were together in the undying lands, inside Mandos or outside it. That little uncertainty was left to me, and I clung to it.
Grigori, it turned out, had blown all his money on candles, so I played for our supper and board in one of the better inns around the monastery. The next day, he fell in with a rich widow who was staying in that same inn and hung on his every word, and I simply let myself drop away while he kept impressing people with the strength of his simple faith.
I was so thoroughly fed up with the place and all it entailed, and so yearning for the sea, I even took a train there, although I normally consider these engines living by burning up ancient life to be of truly orcish, even Morgothian, stench and cunning. They will induce humans to burn up their world, I fear.
Grigori, in any case, for all that he had boasted of his fighting the flesh, later became infamous for having had, under a pious pretexts, more women than could be considered humanly feasible, and ended up being murdered by two young men to whom he should by rights, from all I later heard, have said the things he'd told me as concerns Maitimo and Findekano.
But such is human weakness.
The narrator, of course, is Maglor himself. He says "a short while ago" when he is, in fact, talking of the 1890s; that is not an Elvish yen back, and a very short while to Maglor.
The place is somewhere in western Siberia, coming down from the Ural mountains.
The sea he is aiming for is the Black Sea.
As for the human wanderer having no right to wear a large wooden cross on his chest, Orthodox religion only allows ordained priests to wear large pectoral crosses. And he's a heretic too, by the way he puts his fingers, but Maglor probably doesn't know that much about the intricacies of human superstitions.
Grigori did indeed die of drowning, in December 1916, under the ice of the River Neva in St. Petersburg, after having been poisoned, shot (twice) and bludgeoned to death with a dumbbell.
My version of Maglor's memories of Maedhros and Fingon follows Finch's wonderful story "Under the Curse".
As for the enemies Grigori makes later in life, as Maglor predicts, just refer to the way he died…
As for Maglor's ear, in this one point do I follow the LOTR movie-verse. And I think Maglor would have done something about that one bodily feature that easily distinguished him from a human.
As for Grigori having been nearsighted, that is neither confirmed fact nor my own idea – my friend Nazgul #5 extrapolated that from what facts we know about him.
Ah yes, and Grigori, for all that haven't yet noticed, is the infamous Grigori Efimovich Rasputin, one of the most dubious and maligned (rightly or wrongly) historical figures in the twentieth century. He stepped on many toes, and made many people think, from all we still know about him – so I have him annoying Maglor here, early on in his career.