“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”
Robert Frost- “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening”
A SNOWY EVENING
From their room on the fourth floor of the Hotel Saint Honore, Illya Kuryakin observed the snow-covered Rue Jean Jacques Rousseau with equanimity. It had been snowing since early morning, the first significant storm of the season, and although the snow had tapered off by mid-afternoon, the streets of Paris remained buried beneath a thick carpet of white. Traffic was non-existent, and the only sign of life on the street below was a lone man shuffling by on cross-country skis, his rucksack brimming with brightly wrapped presents. Orly-Paris Airport was closed until morning, their flight back to New York cancelled.
Ah well, Illya thought to himself, such are the vagaries of fate.
The mission had gone well for a change. They had restored the kidnapped daughter of the new Prime Minister of Belgium to the bosom of her family, and had received the grateful thanks of King Baudouin himself. Nobody died, or got captured, tortured for information, or was forced to chase an impossible deadline in a frantic attempt at rescue. All in all, it had been a good week.
In the adjoining bathroom, Napoleon Solo hummed as he adjusted his cufflinks. “Are you sure you don't mind my going out?” he asked. “It's Christmas Eve, after all. I can always cancel.”
Illya's expression spoke volumes. “And miss out on dinner with the lovely and pulchritudinous Babette? I wouldn't hear of it.”
“Well, if you're sure - -?”
“Go and celebrate, Napoleon. I have our mission assessment to complete for Mr. Waverly. You know how testy he gets when we file it late.”
Napoleon exited the small bathroom impeccably groomed and tailored, all traces of the recent mission washed away. “You're really going to spend Christmas Eve writing a report? For godssake, Illya, even Waverly's taking the night off.”
Illya shrugged. “To each, his own. After all, it's not as though the holiday has any special meaning for me.”
It was true. Christmas, while not officially banned in the USSR, was certainly not encouraged. Hence, Illya had no reference point for the holiday.
The realization saddened Napoleon. Christmas had always been a special time in the Solo household, a day when the entire clan came together at his grandparents' farm in Connecticut to celebrate the day. Memories of hot cocoa by the fireplace, of sledding at insane speeds down Bell's Break Hill with his cousins, of cutthroat card games and Grandma's special chestnut stuffing filled him with anticipation every December. While he was disappointed to be missing out on the fun this year, at least he had memories to sustain him.
Illya, on the other hand, had led a bleak, austere life under the Soviet system. Although he never talked about it, the private file in Waverly's office listed him as an orphan, raised by the State from an early age. What must those memories be like?
“Why don't I ask the lovely Babette if she has has a friend?” Solo suggested, determined to inspire his partner with at least one wonder of the season.
Illya rolled his eyes. “Not everyone has a pressing need to get laid on Christmas, Napoleon. Go thou, and experience all the 'gladness and joy' your libido can hold. I will be fine. You need not concern yourself.”
“But - it's Christmas.”
“Ah, yes,” Illya intoned, “Christmas. A cherished capitalist holiday based on the dubious virtues of conspicuous consumption.”
The man could be so exasperating at times! “We give one another gifts, yes, Illya. But it's more than that. It's about family getting together, celebrating our heritage, our faith. Passing on cherished traditions- -”
“Please, Napoleon.” Illya's voice had an edge to it now. “Do not trouble yourself on my account. I will be fine.”
Solo sensed that he had crossed some sort of line. He only wished he knew which one. They'd been partners for nearly a year now, fought beside one another, lived – and nearly died - together, and still there were so many boundaries, so many private places walled up inside the dour Russian. They had barely begun to scratch the surface of a friendship. “Okay,” he agreed smoothly. “You win. I'll make it an early night - back by midnight at the latest, and we'll have a drink together. That okay with you, tovarisch?”
A moment's hesitation, and then a curt nod.
Napoleon went on as though nothing had happened. “Assuming the airport reopens on schedule, we're booked on the six A.M. flight to New York.” He paused, his hand on the doorknob. “You're sure you don't mind?”
“Right.” He sighed. “Get some rest, tovarisch.” The door closed softly behind him.
With Napoleon gone, the room felt emptier, deflated, as though it had lost some of its vibrancy. Illya settled in atop the bed, where he ate a package of stale corn chips from the machine in the lobby. He worked half-heartedly on the mission report for an hour before giving up in disgust.
I behaved badly with Napoleon, he chided himself. He was trying to include me in his celebration, not indoctrinate me into the evils of capitalism.
The clock on the nightstand showed that it was after five. A glance out the window told Illya that it had grown dark while he'd worked. The skies were clearing, which meant that their flight would take off as scheduled in the morning. He glanced down at the half-finished report, and sighed, knowing a lost cause when he saw one.
There will be ample time to finish it on the plane, I suppose.
Throwing on his coat and scarf, Illya took the creaking elevator down to the lobby, bid bonne nuit to the elderly concierge, half-asleep in front of her television, and stepped out into the frosty and moonless evening.
The streets of the 1stArrondissement were silent as he made his way down the narrow Rue Jean Jacques Rousseau, heading in the direction of the Seine. The local patisserie was closed, as was the boulangerie. A few flakes of wet snow drifted down, weightless motes settling into gentle anonymity amidst the gathering darkness.
He turned onto the Rue du Louvre where the traffic was heavier, the main arteries of the city having been plowed some hours ago. He passed an open cafe, its brightly lit entrance adorned with festive garlands. Somewhere inside, a woman laughed, an earthy, suggestive contralto. He thought about stopping in for a drink, and perhaps conversation, but discarded the idea almost at once. Alcohol was not a companion he craved tonight.
He crossed the Rue de Rivoli to the Louvre, and entered the vast museum's ornate central courtyard. A young musician was playing his flute in the shelter of a stone archway, hoping to earn a few sous for his trouble. Illya recognized the melody as Harold McNair's jazzy “Affectionate Fink,” a difficult piece to play, even with fingers not frozen by the cold. He dug a few coins out of his pocket and dropped them into the shivering musician's case.
“De rien. C'est froid hors.”
Illya walked on. He passed under another archway, this one leading from the Louvre Courtyard to the Pont des Arts. He picked his way carefully across the icy bridge, pausing for a moment to peer down into the turbulent green water. The view, he found, complemented his unsettled mood. The bateaux mouches were idle tonight, rocking tipsily on their moorings, and the ragtag collection of summer houseboats traditionally anchored along the riverbank were shuttered and still, their occupants having departed for warmer climes. He crossed the Seine to the Left Bank, and continued to follow the path of the river. The bells of Notre Dame rang out from nearby Ile de la Cite, filling the night with their song.
He entered the Latin Quarter via the Rue Saint-Jacques, passing the cobbled entrance to the Sorbonne and the great dome of the Pantheon. He had no clear sense of purpose or direction, but chose streets and passageways at random, turning one corner and then another as the streets grew steeper and more narrow. Glancing at his watch, he was surprised to find that he had been walking for nearly an hour.
He turned left onto the Rue Vielle, intending to retrace his steps back through the Latin Quarter to the hotel, but before he had gone a dozen steps, he stopped. Like something out of a fairy tale, the colorful onion domes of a Russian church rose before his astonished eyes. “L'Iglise Orthodoxe Russe du Saint Basil,” read the sign on the snow-covered lawn. A steady influx of parishioners streamed toward the open doors, laughing and chatting in a dazzling polyglot of Russian, French and Ukrainian.
It was like finding a little patch of Kiev in the middle of Paris. As Illya stared, enchanted, a middle-aged woman approached him, a set of unruly twin boys in tow.
'Good evening,” she said in Russian. Dobri vyetcher. “Are you lost?”
“Nyet,” he replied automatically. “Pa se tee tyel.” I am a visitor.
“Ukrainian,” he corrected.
“Are you sure you're not lost?” she asked again. “You look a bit dazed.”
Illy shook his head. “Merely surprised.” Seeing her puzzled expression, he hastened to explain. “I attended University in Paris some years ago, but I had forgotten about the church.”
“Ah. Well, your timing couldn't be better. Come inside and warm yourself. The Holy Supper will begin very soon.”
Illya looked up, and saw that the stars had come out, signaling the official start of Russian Christmas Eve. For a moment, he was puzzled, for the date seemed wrong to him. Then he remembered that, outside of Russia, most Eastern churches celebrated Christmas on December 25th rather than the more traditional January 7th. Inside the USSR, of course, the holiday had not been celebrated for decades, although perhaps, with Kruschev gone and Kosygin in power, that situation might change. Banned or not, however, it was nothing to him.
“Ahh.” The woman nodded her understanding. “You are not religious?”
Illya shook his head. “I am afraid not.”
“Come for the food then.” She smiled, and took his arm.
He would have refused, but the sound of so many people conversing in his native language filled Illya with a homesickness he had not known he possessed. He allowed the woman to guide him up the steps to the church's Parish Hall, and to seat him at one of the many tables set up there for the feast.
“Please,” she said, indicating a chair. “Stay and eat with us.”
Illya realized that he was, indeed, quite hungry. “If you're sure - -?” After a moment's hesitation, he took the proffered chair. “Spasibo.”
The woman gave a small bow. “Pazhaluista. My name is Anya Vasilyeva, and this unruly group of barbarians is my family. Pyotr, my husband. Our boys, Fabi and Gav. My sister, Zoya, her husband Zivon. Their daughter Katya.” She continued around the table until the entire family had been introduced. Illya committed the names to memory, an action as natural to him as breathing.
Zoya's husband - Zivon - peered at Illya, suspicion clouding his small, dark eyes. “What did you say your name was?”
Illya could feel the distrust emanating from the man. “Illya Nickovitch Kuryakin,” he answered.
“Hmm. Kuryakin. That's Ukrainian, isn't it?”
“You're a long way from the Ukraine, Kuryakin. What are you doing here, so far from your home?”
Zoya lay her hand atop her husband's. “Zivon - -”
Illya sighed, knowing instinctively that words would not solve this. “I was out walking, and stumbled upon your church by accident.”
The man's scowl deepened. “A strange accident, you finding your way here, to the only Russian church in all of Paris.”
“Please,” his wife implored him. “Leave the poor man be.”
Zivon waved her away. “You are not welcome here, Kuryakin. You should go. Now, before - -”
Zoya took ahold of his arm. “Enough! Have you forgotten what holiday we celebrate?”
“Bah!” Zivon stood, knocking over his chair in the process, and stalked away. After a moment, his wife rose to follow him.
“I should go,” Illya said regretfully. He stood, reaching for his coat. “I have no wish to spoil your celebration.”
But Anya shook her head. “Give them a moment. It will be all right.”
Zivon was speaking urgently to his wife in a corner of the hall. llya analyzed their body language, reading their lips without conscious thought.
“That animal has KGB written all over him!” Zivon snapped. “How could your sister invite him to sit at our table?”
“It's Christmas. He had nowhere else to go. And anyway, you're just guessing. You don't know for sure that he's one of them.”
“Did you see his eyes? Cold as ice. I tell you, he's here to spy on us!”
“I don't know why he's here,” Zoya replied quietly. “But on Christmas Eve, there should always be room at the Inn.” She regarded him sternly. “Now behave yourself, Zivon Dyachenko. I won't have you teaching our daughter bad manners.”
Zivon had no answer for that, and so the matter was settled. Zoya returned to the table, but Zivon went outside to smoke a cigarette and sulk.
“I am sorry,” Zoya said. “My husband suffered greatly under Stalin. He spent several years in a gulag. Now he sees spies everywhere.”
Illya nodded gravely. The woman had no idea how close to the truth her husband's suspicions had been. “In another life, he would have been right to suspect me. I am a stranger, after all.”
“Not tonight,” Anya replied as she joined her sister at the table. “Tonight, there are no strangers. Everyone is welcome at the Feast.”
The atmosphere became more relaxed after that. Illya chatted amiably with the family, giving noncommittal answers to their questions about his background, and asking several pointed questions of his own. Meanwhile, he studied the crowd, which was growing larger by the minute. Much of what he saw was familiar to him - -the colorful embroidery on the costumes of the old women, the tantalizing aromas emanating from the Parish kitchen, the deep, comforting sound of his native tongue, spoken as it should be spoken. His keen ear picked out snatches of conversation in Ukrainian, Slovakian and Belarusian dialects, French and English, as well as one formidable gentleman who spoke classic Northern Russian with a pronounced Mandarin accent. Families wandered from table to table, greeting friends and neighbors – 'S Rozhdestvomi!” “Kak dela!” There was so much happiness in the room, he felt the walls might burst with it, and the roof, loosed of its restraints, simply fly off into the night.
The indomitable spirit of the Russian people, Illya thought to himself, and felt his heart swell with pride. We always find a way to survive.
The tables in the hall were simple rounds covered with white linen tablecloths. A tall white candle stood in the center of each table, and beside it, a sheaf of summer hay and a round loaf of pagach. Anya pointed to each object, explaining its significance to him. “Swaddling clothes. The Light of the World. Hay from the Stable. The Bread of Life.”
On the small stage at the front of the hall stood a fat Christmas tree, decorated with handmade icons, painted eggs and fruit. When everyone was finally seated, the bubble lights on the tree were lit, blazing to life amid applause and gasps of delight. “'S Rozhdestvomi!” they shouted. Happy Christmas! Zivon quietly resumed his seat at the table in the midst of all the shouting and clapping. Although he continued to regard Illya with distrust, he kept his word to Zoya, and made no attempt to provoke another confrontation.
The priest led the congregation in the Lord's Prayer, followed by a prayer of thanksgiving for past blessings, and another for blessings in the year to come. Illya observed the ritual in respectful silence.
“Christ is born!” intoned the priest.
“Glorify Him!” the congregation answered.
Anya rose to her feet, a golden bowl of honey cupped in her large hands. She circled clockwise around the table, pausing before each person to repeat the ritual blessing. “May you have sweetness in life, and in the New Year,” Dipping her fingers into the honey, she traced the sign of the cross onto each brow.
They ate warm bread, dipped generously in honey and garlic to symbolize the sweet and the bitter moments of life, and then the meal began in earnest. Illya gorged himself on thick mushroom soup and baked cod, walnuts and apricots, boiled potatoes and red wine.
“How can you eat so much and still be so skinny?” Anya remarked in amazement when Illya reached out to refill his plate for the third time. “Where do you put it all?!”
Illya grinned happily. “A meal this good should never be wasted on amateurs.”
While they ate, groups of children dressed as cows and sheep meandered from table to table, lowing loudly and causing a commotion until they received a sweet treat or a small coin. Illya couldn't help laughing at their antics.
“You are a mercenary bunch,” he chuckled as he handed over the contents of his pockets. “Are you sure you haven't robbed any banks recently?”
The children scooped up their ill-gotten gains and galloped away, giggling.
“So you do laugh on occasion,” Anya remarked when they had gone. “I didn't think you could.”
Illya shrugged. “Life is a serious undertaking.”
“Life is a gift,” she replied mildly.
When the meal was finished - the dishes left unwashed according to tradition – Saint Nicholas appeared to hand out gifts. A balalaika band played traditional Russian carols – kolyadki – as the crowd sang and clapped. Several of the young women had been eyeing the gorgeous newcomer throughout the meal. Now they invited Illya to dance with them. He refused, pleading lack of coordination and a full belly, but they persisted. At last, Illya gave in, and found to his surprise that he enjoyed himself immensely. He danced traditional khorovods, troikas and kadrils with a steady variety of pretty, willing partners. When it came time for the barynya, he proved remarkably adept at the stomping, squatting and knee-bending moves, all performed at breakneck speed and to thunderous applause.
When the dancing ended, Illya dragged himself back to his chair, utterly satisfied. The meal had been delicious, the dancing, delightful. He felt pleasantly drugged, as though he had stepped into a dream.
Amid polite applause, Saint Nicholas made his way to the front of the hall to read the story of Babushka and the Three Kings. Adjusting his spectacles upon his florid nose, he opened his copy of “Narodnye Russkie Skazki,” peered down at the host of children gathered sleepily at his feet, and began to read. “Once upon a time, in a land far away, there lived an old woman. She was so old that no one alive could remember her real name any longer, so everyone just called her 'Babushka' - -”
Illya glanced at his watch, startled to see that it was after eleven. He leaned across the table, speaking quietly to Anya so as not to disturb the reading.
“Thank you for your splendid hospitality,” he said, “but it is later than I realized. I'm afraid I must be going.”
Anya's face fell. “So soon? I thought perhaps you might stay and join us for the Christmas Vigil.”
Illya shook his head. “I cannot. I have somewhere to be, someone I have promised to meet. I do not wish to be late.” He realized, to his surprise, that it was true.
“Will we see you again?”
“Regrettably, I must leave for home tomorrow. It may be a long time before I return.”
It seemed to Illya that she expected his answer. “At least light a candle in the sanctuary before you go. You can even say a prayer, if you like.”
His eyes were kind. “I do not pray. But perhaps you could light a candle for me.”
Anya warmed at the suggestion. “Of course.” She took his hand, cradling it gently, as one would a small bird. “Tell me, Illya Nickovitch Kuryakin,” she inquired softly, “what shall I pray for?”
Illya considered the question. “Peace,” he said, and felt the wish take root in his heart. “Pray for peace.”
* * *
He stepped out into the clear, cold night. The moon was rising above the trees in the nearby park, a silver orb of gorgeous brilliance in a sky littered with stars. Buttoning his coat against the chill wind, he crossed the silent street, and stood for several minutes beneath the snow-laden limbs of a sycamore, watching the play of candlelight behind the stained glass windows, and listening to the faint sounds of laughter coming from within.
I have been offered a gift tonight. Like gold and frankincense and myrrh, the gift was precious, beyond price, to be treasured forever.
The word tolled like a great bell upon his heart. These people had welcomed him, fed him, had given him their trust and asked for nothing in return. Their women had danced with him, flirted with him, kissed his cheek. Their children had sat upon his lap, their young eyes shining with innocence and trust. His eyes - the beautiful blue eyes that all the women adored - had never in his life held such an undefended expression as theirs. Of that, he was sure. How fortunate those children were, to live in such a safe and happy world!
Tonight, if only for a few hours, their world had been his world, too. Tonight, he was a rich man.
He looked back, once, twice, feeling the warmth of the church and its people embrace him for the last time. Turning away, he moved off down the snow-covered street, smiling as he retraced his steps toward the river and the hotel, where Napoleon was waiting.