I have many writing projects going on but I made sure I found time to begin the sequel to The White Birds of Morning this past week. Unnamed so far, it is the third book in the series that began with the award-winning Zo and covers the years in the story between 1943 and 1945. I have an excerpt for you here BUT, as it is carrying on from the story in White Birds, it does contain spoilers, so you may not want to look at it until you've read White Birds through. (Yes, people tell me White Birds is long, but so is the Bible, and many of them have read that. You read long books the same way you read the Bible or short books - a chapter at a time! Thanks, by the way, to those who have finished White Birds and sent their notes of appreciation.)
The Hour of Darkness
1943 - 1945
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I carried her through the snow. In all that time on the train she had scarcely stiffened. They tried to convince me to leave her at the station in Vinnytsia but I was determined to go on. We came to a stop two hundred kilometres east of Lviv. There was a village. We were in Galicia so I climbed off the train with her in my arms. The snow was coming down so thickly her body was white in a few minutes. I kept wiping it off her face. I wanted to see her eyes. I had not closed them. There was no loss of colour. They were clear.
I headed through the snowdrifts towards the woods. I did not know that thousands of Jews had been shot under the trees. When I found out later it did not matter. She would have been proud to be buried among them. I could see there had been digging so I realized there had been executions and burials. I found a hole that was half-filled with snow and ice but nothing and no one else. She settled into it very easily. I was worried about the wolves so I spent some time prying up rocks from under the snow and frozen dirt and placing them one by one over her body until I was satisfied she was safe.
By then my fingers were raw and bleeding. I welcomed the sensation. I was grateful I could bury her with some pain and some blood. I think there was a prayer too. A good atheist’s prayer for a saint. Yes. I did that.
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I am here on behalf of the Vatican because, quite frankly, Brother Nahum, your testimony is riddled with inconsistencies – I think I may call them that.
If the Holy Father feels that is so why – why didn’t the archbishop come?
He is a cardinal now. Much too busy to fly to America in order to iron out a few wrinkles.
So he sends a woman.
A sister in Christ.
Your sister is set to be beatified next month by the Holy Father. I am only here for a day. You can look up my order on your search engine after I’m gone.
Yes. Can’t you tell by my robe and my klobuk – my head covering?
A Russian Orthodox nun. And you sit there – you sit there and tell me you are sent by the Vatican?
There is no record of what happened between the end of December 1943 and the summer of 1946 when you suddenly appear in Canada.
There is nothing to talk about. The German war machine broke apart. Berlin fell. Eventually I was repatriated and I returned to North America.
Even though you had served with the SS?
I served – with the armored units. Not death squads.
There is no record of you having served with the SS tank corps, the Panzerwaffen, as you claim. But there is something about an interview on a Nazi newsreel. That ought to have been enough to keep you out of Canada. Some would consider a pro-Nazi interview an act of treason. There is also information about you serving with the 14th Waffen SS, the Galician Division, although the file is incomplete. I am surprised you were not detained or arrested on suspicion of war crimes.
I committed no crimes.
What about the monastery at Pidkamin? In March of 1944?
The Canadian Commission of Inquiry on War Crimes ruled that the 14th Waffen SS should not be indicted as a group. Charges of war crimes against the Division have never been substantiated.
You appear well versed on this, brother.
It comes to my mind that there are no monastic orders within the Orthodox Church. You must be what they call a Schema. But not a Great Schema.
What makes you think I am not a Great Schema?
You are too young. And you are not dead. It seems to me that the very old and the dead are the ones who achieve that level of spiritual honour.
Perhaps I am older than you think.
Your head covering would be different if you were a Great Schema. And I see by your face you are not above 40 – am I not right?
There are other problems with your testimony. Sometimes little things: survivors report the music playing during the village of Mir’s destruction by the Red Army was the opera Boris Godunov, not Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
Beethoven is how I remember it.
There are greater issues than this. You say your sister Zoya shot and killed enemy soldiers. Even the wounded. All other witnesses deny this, including those closest to her who survived the war. You say Zoya and the young woman, Zhanna Yeva, whom you buried east of Lviv, often quarreled – others, all others, tell us they adored one another and were almost always in agreement.
An old man’s memory is often sharper than that of the young.
They are all old now as well as you. Perhaps your sister did not want you to make something of the miracles of healing attributed to her. Perhaps she made you swear an oath to alter her story to prevent anything like beatification or canonization from taking place.
Do you think she was that humble, Sister Afanasii?
Not according to your version of events. But if she asked you to change everything, how would we know? You did slip up once. You said she thrust your hand into a candle and made you promise never to talk about the healings that took place during the fighting in eastern Ukraine.
I think that was a false memory. The archbishop – the cardinal – had me talking for long stretches. I began to imagine things, conjure up events that never transpired.
My mind was wheeling round and around. And they were recording all that sacred music at the same time as the cardinal and I met. It was hardly possible to think clearly.
You mention Ukrainian partisans you say were Jewish. But our investigation reveals they were a mix of Arabs and Jews. All killed in 1948. Not fighting each other. As a group they supported the formation of a Palestinian state and also an Israeli state. Arabs killed the Arabs among them and Jews killed the Jews.
I did not know. I did not know what happened.
Eyewitnesses deny Zoya was ever married. Ever had a lover. Ever bore a child.
A perpetual virgin.
I have eyes. I too witnessed. She was my sister. I have no legend or mythology to promote.
So you’re sticking to your story.
I am only telling you the truth. I was there. She had a boy. He still lives.
I want to return to your time with the 14th Waffen SS and the alleged war crimes.
Did you serve with them? Were you at the Battle of Brody?
The Vatican sends a pitbull – but why? Why are you here? Rome has all the information it needs. At least half-a-dozen miracles have been documented, haven’t they? You do not believe the things I tell you. They are not convenient for the sainthood you are trying to weave into existence. So why come again? And again and again? What do you want? There is nothing else you need.
We need to know what happened in 1944 and 1945. If someone came up with evidence that compromised Zoya’s beatification it could be awkward. I would rather we knew about it first. Before the devil’s advocate got a hold of it.
There is nothing from those two years that will place the Holy Father in an awkward position.
Let me be the judge of that.
There is no point to this harassment. Let me die in peace.
But you are not at peace. Are you?