Ikon – an excerpt

Chapter 1

The Island. 1408

It was some time before he noticed that one of the goats was gone. The black and white kid; always an adventurous little bugger, the boy told himself. The little beast had lost its mother, taken by God knows what when her kid was not yet weaned. He had found her carcass down a ravine, torn apart and stinking in the high sun. Probably town dogs; they roamed in packs. Enough of them and they could bring down a nanny-goat with no difficulty. He had fed the kid with milk from the other females, succouring the little black and white runt until it grew into this independent, wayward adolescent.

The boy had been sitting on the rock for a while. Daydreaming and forgetting his charges in the tight, middle of the day heat. Now he was in trouble. It would mean another beating, returning with one kid less.

“And how do you think we live when you keep losing our goats, stupid layabout?” He could hear his Baba now, the roughened tone betraying no affection, the arm raised to beat him. A familiar enough event for the boy but, even so, and even though he did not recognise it, the violence was eating into his soul.

The rest of the flock were quiet. Not moving too much, gently cropping the desiccated thistles, impervious to the heat of the day. He could risk leaving them, it would be no more than a few minutes. He had lived with these animals for so long, he knew their ways. He knew they would not move from good grazing; instinctively he knew which way the missing kid would have gone.

He slipped off the rock and landed on the dusty path. Picking up his long stick he set off up the slope, heading for the skyline. The thistles scratched his ankles but he was used to that. The thick leather of his sandals protected his soles, he was at ease. He knew his way around this island.

He reached the top of a rise. Now he was looking across a hidden valley to the sloping skyline. His eye followed it upwards to the small white block on the summit; familiar to him, that building. The Holy Kathisma and church of Profitis Ilias. Mama had told him about it. There was no hermit there nowadays. It was empty throughout the year.

He shifted his gaze to the valley and immediately spotted a movement. There he was, the little bastard. A flood of relief drenched him when he saw the black and white shape under a thorn bush, quietly grazing on the few remaining leaves. The landscape was barren, there were no trees, just rocks and scrub; precious little good land and therefore precious little wealth on this island.

He made his way down to the valley, careful not to alert the jumpy kid. Even though he had reared this little fellow the young goat was still capable of making a run for it. The boy slipped down behind a rock, only a few paces from the animal. He stilled his breathing and took stock. The slope behind the bush was steep, a goat could skip up it but not a boy. If he made a rush for the kid it would be up that slope with no difficulty.

It dawned on him that his options were limited. Either he left the kid where it was in the hope that it would return later or else he had to find some means to catch it. The former was attractive except that he knew that the chances of the little animal making it back alone were negligible. Almost certainly the foxes would have it, even an eagle would tackle a little creature like that. More than his affection for the beast he feared his father’s reaction to the news that another valuable kid had gone. He felt tears in his eyes, frustration dissolved into fear and anger.

There was one chance. He reached in his pocket for the thin pipe. He had fashioned this himself. It had taken him days to complete but, in the end, he was proud of his handiwork. At first he could blow a few notes only. As time went on he could sound phrases that eventually led into tunes. Haunting tunes incorporating trills, falling intervals. Tunes of the country, tunes from the rocks, the wheeling crows, the calls of the goats.

He started to play. As the snatches of melody echoed around the valley he watched the kid. Its head rose from feeding, looking across to where the boy sat playing his pipe. And then it froze, as if the music of the pipe had reached its waywardness. He felt a surge of relief, but continued to play. After a few moments the animal took a few tentative steps towards the boy. It stopped in the full sunlight, sniffing the air, seeming to judge how safe it was to continue this move. Goats are very aware of danger, he thought; that caution and an ability to eat almost anything around was what made them so successful on this island.

The boy watched and continued to play. He searched for his most entrancing tunes. Music of attraction representing safety. Come, little goat, he thought. Come on. Save me from a belting, come on. He played on.

At first he did not notice. He was so absorbed with playing in the little truant that he failed to see movement on the skyline. The kid had stopped three paces from him. He stopped playing and at that moment he did see something on the ridge. He looked up. The sun was directly in his eyes. He lifted his arm to shield the light and screwed up his eyes.

The figures were silhouetted. They formed a line along the slope. Five of them. The one in the front was carrying a pole. Following on, at a laboured pace, were two other figures. They seemed to be dressed in black but the sun was in his eyes, he was unsure. The fourth one was not in black, he was sure of that. Dressed like his father, like any other man on the island who was not a monk. He was carrying something. It was rectangular, not large, it was difficult to make it out; sunshine glistened off gold but that moment of iridescence was soon gone.

For a brief interval a cloud covered the sun. It was then that the boy could make out the fifth figure. He was some distance away but his long, grey beard, his clothing, the hat that he wore, all these were recognisable to the boy who had spent all of his short life in the shadow of the Monastery, who had been taken to the Holy Week and Easter celebrations every year since ever he could remember. It was the Abbot of the Monastery of Ayios Ioánnis Theologos, the Monastery that dominated the island from its perch on the hill opposite. There was no mistaking him.

The boy stood rock-still as he watched the slow progress of this strange procession, moving steadily up the slope. Sounds of a chant floated down to him in the still afternoon air. Chants like those that he heard in church though he could not make them out clearly enough to identify them. And then he did; Kýrie eléison, no mistaking that. ‘Lord have mercy’. What were they doing?

Time passed, though he was oblivious of it, as the procession ascended the steep slope to the summit. They were heading for the white, block shaped building that was the church of Profitis Ilias. He had often been in that church. It was little more than a shed. A rough bench along one wall, a primitive ikonostasis and little else apart from a worn fresco on the side wall. They only had one service a year in that church; on the commemoration day, attended by the Abbot, a few monks and the occasional man from the town.

But, it was not that day today, he was sure of that. What was happening? The monk in front lowered his crucifix (the boy could now see what the pole was) and ducked into the church, the others followed. They disappeared.

He felt a softness against his leg. It was the kid, muzzling up to the one human that it knew it could trust. The boy slipped a braid around the neck of the small creature and breathed a sigh of relief. He became aware that, whatever it was that was happening in that small church, the participants would not welcome being observed by a scruffy goatherd. Gently tugging on the braid he led the kid back to the herd. He was relieved to see that the rest had not wandered off in his absence, With a twitch of his long stick he drove them down to the path, leading them towards the small town.

Again a meandering chant drifted down to him on the gentle breeze. He looked back. The sun had shifted a bit and he could see them more clearly now. Coming down the ridge, the same procession but without the object. The man, no longer encumbered by his load, was helping the Abbot over the rough ground. Whatever his former burden was he had left it behind.

The boy turned back down the track. Soon he reached the shed where the goats were housed. It was a tumble-down affair made of rough hewn stones. Grass sprouted from the roof. Inside the stench would have been unbearable to most people; he barely noticed it.

It was nowhere near nightfall but he needed to leave them secure. His Baba was out with the fishing boat and would not be back until after dark. He closed the latch on the shed and turned back up the path.

It was hot for an ascent. No shelter, no shade; those people must have sweated in those robes. But the boy was driven on by his curiosity, he was oblivious of discomfort. It was a rocky climb to the summit, a jagged ascent.

Soon he was standing in front of the small church. He found that he was panting, now he began to feel the heat. No shelter up here; poised on a pinnacle like a stylite there was no escape from the sun. Sweat was running off him, he felt light-headed, the white building seemed to sway on its rock foundation. Now it was more than curiosity. Whatever was inside this church, whatever it was that had been carried up the mountain by that strange procession began to assume an overriding importance for him. It had become vital that he should unravel this strange secret. At that moment more vital to his life than anything else. Not that he ever thought much about his life. What was there to think about? The same most days, tending the goats, milking the nannies, delivering the kids, putting the billies, stinking of lust and copulation, to tup the females in season. He never imagined it could be different. Even his father’s beltings made a change from the sameness of his days.

But now there was a mystery. He had to look so he took a few steps forward. Now he was standing in the entrance to the church; he pushed open the door.

The light overtook him and illuminated the far wall. He stepped over the threshold and screwed up his eyes for a few seconds. A trick he had learnt when he lost goats in a cave. Opening his eyes slowly his sight was adapted to the shade. He looked around, careful not to look into the bright light flooding through the door.

It appeared that nothing had changed. No sign of a rectangular object. Nowhere. He scrabbled around behind the ikonostasis. Nothing there at all.

The church was empty. He sat down on the dirt floor; mystified.

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