The road re-entered the forest, so for the next hour Danka continued walking in darkness. She had to go slowly to avoid tripping and to avoid wandering off the trail. However, the birds were singing, so the spooky silence of the deepest part of night had passed.
When Danka emerged into another cleared area, the sky was already bright. She crossed another sheep meadow and passed an inn. Several men were outside, getting their horses and mules ready for the day’s travel. They all stared at her and several made admiring comments:
“It’s a pity all the lasses don’t run around like that one.”
“It’s an even greater pity all the lasses don’t look like that one.”
Not knowing what else to do, Danka picked up her pace and moved away from the inn as quickly as she could.
That morning she passed many men and boys on the road. They were from all sectors of Danubian society: farmers, squads of the Duke’s soldiers, trading caravans, vagabonds, stage coaches, and the occasional noble. There were a few women and girls on the road as well, but they were always accompanied by at least one man carrying a weapon. All the men and boys stared at her with unabashed lust; all the women and girls stared at her with blatant curiosity. At first Danka was terrified by all the staring, then she merely found it irritating. By mid-day she began to enjoy the attention. She had been almost invisible at home, but here, in this strange province, everyone seemed interested in her, or at least in looking at her.
A Priest and Priestess approached Danka. She remembered to kneel, placing her hands in front and touching her forehead to the ground. The Priest blessed her and handed her a piece of bread. Free bread, hmmm, that was one benefit of Public Penance that Farmer Orsktackt had neglected to tell her about.
By midday her arms became sore from carrying the bucket and she was hungry. She realized that she had forgotten to eat. She ate some of her apples and continued; her bucket now somewhat lighter. Throughout the afternoon she continued to eat apples as she walked. She passed through several villages, looking around at all the new buildings and people with fascination. In one peasant’s farm she saw goats for the first time in her life and wasted half an hour staring at them. As the sun started to get low in the horizon she witnessed a stage coach accident; a wheel from an overloaded stage coach collapsed, causing the vehicle to fall sideways and spill its load of passengers and cargo. She watched the ensuing fight between the driver and several passengers, which came to an abrupt end when one of the horses ran off and everyone set out to capture the animal. It was a fascinating spectacle for a young person who had spent her life just working in her family’s garden and doing odd jobs.
As sunset approached she entered another large village. She realized that she had wasted too much of her day looking at all the new sights and that nighttime had caught up with her. She was about to panic about that when she noted the steeple of a church. She remembered her collar and Farmer Orsktackt’s promise of a free night’s bed wherever there were clergy members. She approached the church, located the Priest, and remembered to kneel. Sure enough, after glancing at her letter the Priest took her to a cottage inhabited by three apprentices, a young man and two women who were only slightly older than Danka. The trio tasked the visitor with cleaning the kitchen and handed her a bowl of stew and a loaf of bread. She cleaned her teeth at the well before going to sleep.
Danka stayed at the village for three days. The apprentices offered her free lodging and food in exchange for cleaning up and washing clothing and bed linens. In the afternoons they helped her practice drawing alphabet letters. At the end of the third day she spelled out her first word: “A-P-P-L-E”.
On the fourth day she continued walking east, with her supply of apples greatly diminished. The next large provincial town was about three days’ walk past the first village. Danka knew exactly what she needed to do before sunset: go to the next village and report to the local Priest. She was in no hurry, so she could take her time looking at all the new and fascinating sights along the road. To most travelers, the road was no different than any other stretch of the western half of the Duchy, but for Danka, who was seeing everything for the first time; the trip was one of wonders and surprises. She passed an orchard with strange orange fruit and for the first time in her life tasted a peach.
She took a ferry across the Rika Chorna River and spent a pleasant morning bathing and napping on the northern shore, feeling the warm breeze on her naked body as she ate a couple more apples. The bucket was much lighter when she finished her break. She only had six apples remaining, which meant that she would not be able to continue past her next stop without having the money to buy some food. She was not particularly worried, however. She figured the Clergy members at the Church would help her, and possibly assist her in finding employment. She spent the rest of the day walking to the next town, the provincial center Starivktaki Moskt, which in Danubian meant “City of the Ancients.” The town received its name from a pre-Christian temple, which looked like the Temple of the Ancients in the capitol but was much smaller. The local temple was a favorite pilgrimage site for people who did not want to go all the way Danubikt Moskt to visit the main one. There were a couple of cathedrals in the town as well, so Starivktaki Moskt was an important center of the Danubian Church, second only to Danubikt Moskt.
The town was attractive, but in a way totally different from Rika Heckt-nemat. The architecture in Danka’s hometown mostly consisted of multi-storied brick and stone buildings, typical of what would be seen in other Christian countries at the time. Many of Starivktaki Moskt’s buildings were pre-Christian, and many of the newer ones copied the style of the older structures. Rika Heckt-nemat was much more enclosed than its neighbor to the east. Starivktaki Moskt had wider streets and the fronts of most of the houses had pillared entrances and large windows. The houses in Rika Heckt-nemat were grey, brown, and blue; while the structures in Starivktaki Moskt were mostly white and bright yellow. Danka wandered around the town with a bewildered expression as she took in all the new sights.
The day was drawing to a close, so Danka made her way to the Temple to see about a place to sleep. She knelt before an old Priest and Priestess, who immediately complained that her kneeling posture was incorrect. She needed to stretch her hands out in front and keep her forehead to the ground. More importantly, she needed to arch her back and spread her knees.
“You’ve been dishonoring your duty to the collar by not presenting yourself properly. You will understand that your duty to the collar is total submission, and your posture must be one of complete humility and the abandonment of all modesty and pride.”
To drive home the lesson, the Priest left Danka in her corrected kneeling position while he attended other duties. Several people walked in and out of the temple while the Priest was absent. The men always walked behind Danka and studied her exposed bottom-hole and vagina at their leisure. Yes indeed, the corrected kneeling position was one of absolute exposure and submission.
Finally the Priest and his partner returned.
“Now speak. What do you need from us?”
“I’m traveling and I request a place to sleep, Priest.”
“What else do you want from us, Penitent?”
“I’d appreciate a meal, Priest.”
“Yes, and what else do you want from us?”
“I… I’d like to know if there’s work for me, Priest.”
“… and what else, Penitent?”
What else? What else could there be? Well… Danka wouldn’t mind a husband, preferably one with a nice house in the city, but she knew better than to say that to Clergy members. She thought about her efforts to learn the alphabet… maybe that’s what they meant. She decided to try “learning” as an answer, but needed to phrase her request with as much humility as possible, since it seemed that was what those two were after.
“I’m ignorant… I don’t know very much, Priest, and I need to learn… what… what the Church has to teach me.”
“Now we’re coming closer to what you really need. You said it yourself: you’re ignorant. Yes, you are. If you don’t even know how to kneel correctly and are putting your worldly desires ahead of your service to the Creator, then your ignorance dishonors you. That collar means something, girl. It’s not just so you can walk around from Church to Church asking for a free bed and free meals. You’d better straighten your priorities, or I’ll take that collar off your neck and send you away with nothing. Do you understand me?”
Danka trembled, terrified that the Priest would carry out his threat and discover she was wearing a fake collar. Fortunately for Danka, the Priest misinterpreted her fear and assumed she understood that she had offended the Creator (he did not use the more common term “Lord-Creator”) and was ready to comprehend the true meaning of Public Penance.
“Y… yes… Priest… I… under… understand.”
“Very well, dishonored sinner. You will be granted your selfish desires. You will clean your dishonored body, you will fill your dishonored stomach, and you will rest your dishonored head. Tomorrow you will wake up, and we will address your obvious ignorance.”
He whistled in a pattern of high and low whistles, summoning a totally naked female seminary student. The young woman knelt, using the correct position.
“Apprentice, you will take this visitor to the dormitory. Attend to her needs. She is blatantly ignorant, so don’t assume she knows anything. Teach her, and correct her.”
“Yes, Senior Priest.”
“Rise. On your feet, both of you.”
“Yes, Senior Priest.”
Danka was taken aback by the Priest’s rough, insulting treatment. She was more worried about his apparent insight; that he suspected something was not right about her arrangements with the Church. She wanted to flee, but knew that running off was absolutely the worst thing she could do. It was possible the Church would send someone after her. Even if the Church did not pursue her, she’d never be able to set foot in Starivktaki Moskt again. However, what most held her were her physical needs. She had to eat, sleep, get cleaned up, and hopefully find employment. If she spurned the Church, that night she’d have nowhere safe to sleep, nothing except her last apples to eat, and the next day would wake up with no options except going back to stealing.
The residence for the female seminary students was much larger than the one where she had stayed in the village. There were eight official apprentices and four penitents living in a large whitewashed stone house that looked very ancient. It had a courtyard that boasted its own well and a stone bath. In the back the house was a dining area and the nicest kitchen Danka had ever seen. To both the left and the right of the entrance were sleeping quarters. The apprentices slept two in each room while the penitents shared a larger communal room.
The courtyard was full of drying bed linens. The bedding was only one of the duties of the penitents. The penitents had to earn their keep: in exchange for meals, beds, and religious instruction they had to maintain the house and keep everything clean.
The arrangement was acceptable for the penitents. Church protocol mandated that penitents had to perform menial tasks for the Clergy as part of their sentence. To be a penitent was to accept humility, abandon all pride, and serve others. Serving seminary students was not an onerous life. Yes, the women spent a large portion of their day working, but the work was clean and not physically taxing. The women had clean beds to sleep in, ate well, lived under the Church’s protection, and were free to leave whenever they wanted.
Danka was the youngest woman among the penitents. There was a shy woman only slightly older than her who had an illegitimate child and had been disowned by her family. There was a woman who must have been about 30 who, like Danka, had been sentenced to the pillory for petty theft. There were two other women in their forties who had become accustomed to the Public Penance lifestyle and had served the seminary students for years.
The two older penitents ordered Danka to pull off her boots and undo her braids. She had to go through both a ritual and physical cleansing before she could enter the household. While the two younger penitents prepared a bath, the older women and Danka presented themselves to a seminary student for the ritual cleansing.
The seminary student issued the normal prayers for knowledge and enlightenment, but, like the Priest, she surprised the newcomer by using “Creator” instead of the usual “Lord-Creator” to refer to the Church’s supreme-being. She then released the subordinates to allow Danka to bathe, have her hair re-braided, and be accepted into the household.
After her bath, Danka knelt upright while one the older women started fixing her hair. She asked about the seminary student’s strange prayer and her refusal to use the Lord-Creator’s entire name.
“Child, we are Old Believers. We use the prayers of our ancestors, not the prayers of the Romans. The Creator is the true name of the Master of the World. ‘Lord’ and ‘God’ came from the Romans, which is why we don’t use it.”
The penitents showed Danka their dormitory, which contained eight beds plus a makeshift crib for the baby. The newcomer set down her bucket and boots next to one that was unoccupied. She realized her remaining apples weren’t going to stay fresh much longer, so she offered them to her companions. As she pulled out the last of the apples, she noticed a small piece of folded cloth at the bottom of her bucket. She decided to leave it alone. She could see what it contained when the others weren’t looking.
At dinner eight apprentices entered the dining hall. They were young, serious, educated women. Just like the penitents, none of the trainees was wearing a stitch of clothing. Nudity was not a requirement of studying for the Church priesthood, but during the summer there was a practical reason for it. The initiates were each issued a single dress at the beginning of their education. That dress had to last during four years of study: if it wore out before the initiate took her vows, the Church would not replace it. The purpose of the restriction was to encourage the initiates to pay attention to detail and care for every item issued to them by the Church. In practice, the custom forced initiates to wear their dresses as little as possible during warm weather so they’d last through four winters.
The five penitents knelt while the seminary student who had brought Danka to the house introduced her to the others. In keeping with Church tradition, no one asked Danka where she was from or why she was performing Public Penance. Even her name was of no interest to her companions.
Danka was surprised when she and 30-year-old were ordered to set 13 places at the table and not just eight. She expected, because they were serving, that the penitents would eat separately. They had to serve the apprentices first, but the trainees did not touch their food until the penitents had filled their plates and sat down as well. Danka later learned that because the women shared the household, they shared the dining table as well. It was a strange experience, eating in a formal setting with other women who were obviously from a different social class.
The apprentice who had introduced the newcomer took note of the way she ate. The Senior Priest had repeatedly referred to Danka as ignorant. Judging by the way she hunched over the table and ate with her hands, it seemed his assessment was accurate. If she didn’t know how to eat properly, what else didn’t the new girl know? She decided to find out after dinner. If the new penitent had issues, it would be to everyone’s benefit to find out about them before she talked to the Senior Priest the next day.
The apprentice requested that Danka be excused from cleaning up so she could talk to her. The apprentice planned to ask her some questions about basic theology, but on a flash of intuition she realized the first thing to find out about the newcomer was if she could even read. She ordered Danka to accompany her to the house library and ordered her to sit at a study table. The apprentice opened a printed copy of The Book of the True Path, turned several pages, and told the newcomer to read the following passage:
The Destroyer enters the Realm of the Living through the mouth of the liar.
Danka went pale. She trembled and started sweating.
“Read, Penitent. Tell me what this line says.”
“Apprentice… I… I mean… I can’t.”
“You can’t read?”
“No, Apprentice. I can’t.”
“So you really have no idea what you’re doing… ”
“No, Apprentice. I don’t.”
“So the Senior Priest was right about you.”
“Very well. Normally it’s not my prerogative to ask such a question, but in your case I need to know. Why are you wearing a Church collar? What did you do to convince anyone the collar was appropriate for your Path in Life?”
Danka shook, terrified that the Apprentice was about to figure out her secret. Her only option was to divulge a portion of the truth. The Apprentice tapped her shoulder.
“Speak. What did you do to convince anyone the collar was appropriate for your Path in Life? Not a difficult question to answer, Penitent.”
Danka started crying. Between sobs, she answered.
“I… I was stealing apples… from a farmer… he called a city guard… they arrested me… she whipped me… I… I confessed… stole… sold the apples… ”
“Why were you selling stolen apples?”
“… because I wanted a new dress… ”
“Why did you want a new dress?”
“My parents… sister… I have a sister… they want her to get married… me to work… so she could get married… I wanted… to get married first… dress… go in the city… find a husband… ”
“So let me make sure I understand. Your parents were making you work so your sister could get married. You didn’t think that was your Path in Life, to work so your sister could benefit. So you stole apples and sold them, to buy yourself a dress. That is correct?”
“And with your dress, you were going to walk into the town, and some rich man was going to see you and fall in love with you. That was your intention?”
“And you thought just having a dress was going to change the Path of your Life? Why did you think such nonsense? Who told you that?”
Danka told the apprentice about the story she heard, the tale of the serving girl with the magic dress who went to the King’s ball and got the Crown Prince to fall in love with her. The Apprentice was so taken aback by the stupidity of Danka’s assumption that for a moment she couldn’t react. Finally she pressed the newcomer for additional information.
“So, you were caught by the farmer and a female city guard, correct?”
“… and what happened?”
“Pillory… ” Danka responded quietly. Then, remembering what the mob did to her… the very people she had been hoping to impress and whose society she wanted to become a part of… she broke down crying.
The apprentice decided to stop interrogating the Penitent at that moment. It was not difficult to guess what happened next. She had seen multiple pillory punishments. Usually they were uneventful: the criminal spent a day exposed to the city; then wore a penance collar until the family accepted the offender back into their household. There were instances, however, where the spectators went beyond simply observing and started taunting the helpless offender. Once the insults and jeering started, the taunting could get out of hand very quickly and the crowd became uncontrollable. There usually was no particular reason the spectators got out of control; sometimes it just happened.
The apprentice assumed she knew the outcome of Danka’s punishment. When the spectators started attacking her, it was likely a Priest intervened and ordered her taken down. Since the girl was dishonored beyond redemption in her hometown, the Clergy member issued the penance collar so she could get away and make a new life somewhere else. That would explain why she had no theological knowledge. The apprentice thought it was extremely irresponsible to send a penitent away with no instruction, but she could understand the Priest’s reasoning; the dishonored girl had to leave as quickly as possible. The apprentice was right about everything concerning Danka except for one important detail. She did not receive the collar from a Clergy member: she received it from the very man who had her arrested.
Danka’s crying made the apprentice assume that whatever happened to her on the pillory must have been traumatic and that no further questions were necessary. The peasant girl was fortunate that the apprentice did not bother to ask who issued the collar.
The apprentice waited for the penitent’s crying to subside before moving on to another topic.
“I don’t see how we can address your ignorance if you can’t read. Do you at least know the letters?”
“You know how to read and write letters?”
“A little, Apprentice.”
“Very well, let’s see what ‘a little’ means to you.”
The apprentice brought a wooden tray full of fine sand and a stylus that Danubian children used to learn the alphabet. Paper was too expensive to waste on simple learning and writing practice, so typically a student used the stylus like a pen to draw letters in the sand.
“Draw me the letter ‘A’.”
Danka easily drew the letter.
“Now draw the next five letters in the alphabet… ”
Danka complied. The apprentice smoothed the sand and told her ward to write more letters.
“If you know any words, I want you to write them out for me.”
Danka wrote the word “A-P-P-L-E”.
“How appropriate. That’s your first word. Not a bad start. So, you’ve been practicing?”
“Now. I will have you write some letters to make some words. I want you to sound them out and see if you can figure out what they are.”
The apprentice patiently spelled out several words letter by letter, giving the student time to draw them. The words were simple; such as “cat”, “sun”, “bird”, and “nut”. Danka struggled with sounding them out, but eventually pronounced all of the words correctly.
Early the next morning, the apprentice took Danka to the old temple and addressed the Senior Priest. Danka was still terrified that he would figure out her secret, but now she had the apprentice on her side.
The two women knelt in the appropriate position, with their legs spread, their backs arched, their hands extended in front, heads to the ground, and bottoms spread and completely exposed. When the Senior Priest gave them permission to kneel upright, the apprentice requested that both she and the penitent have the day off for writing lessons. The response was that the two women could have the mornings to work on the lessons and Danka would be tested at the end of each week to check her progress. So, that was it: Danka now was committed to learning how to read and write.
The apprentice spent the rest of the morning having Danka practice the sounds associated with each letter and writing simple words. They only stopped when the cathedral bell announced it was mid-day. The lessons became part of the daily routine of Danka and her mentor. She worked hard and learned quickly, earning the respect of her tutor. The apprentice noted:
“You may be ignorant, but you’re definitely not stupid. That may sound like an insult, but it’s not. I’d rather be ignorant and smart than educated and stupid. I have seen plenty of stupid people with education and I can attest such people are tools of the Destroyer.”
By the end of her first week she had completely mastered the alphabet and could spell and write one-syllable words. Learning, like her exploration of new places, became an adventure for the young peasant. Just like her trip to a new province, the world of letters and written words opened up an entirely new part of Danka’s brain, forcing her to think in ways that had never occurred to her when she was still with her family. She was changing and realizing facts about the real world, the most important of which was now knowing that buying a new dress would have made no difference whatsoever in finding an upper-class husband. Upper class women had different skills and knew a bunch of things that Danka had yet to master, only one of which was reading.
After cleaning up from lunch, the five naked penitents settled down for their midday nap. Danka waited for the others to fall asleep so she could finally see what was in that folded cloth sitting in her bucket. When she opened it, there was a piece of parchment with a note, and a silver coin. Danka had never touched a silver coin, let alone have one in her possession. By the standards of her family’s neighborhood, it was a huge amount of money. Now she truly understood how much Farmer Orsktackt wanted to make amends for what had happened to her. She could not understand the note, but it was written in block letters instead of cursive script to allow her to interpret it as quickly as possible. Now she had a specific assignment in reading, something she’d have to master and practice to understand. She practiced tracing the letters in her writing tray until she had the pattern memorized. Then she’d sound out each letter and try to interpret the words. On the first day she figured out C-O-I-N, T-H-I-S, and Y-O-U. The others were beyond her grasp at the moment, but now she was able to sound-out, read, and write three new words.
Danka was the constant companion of the apprentice for the rest of the month. In the mornings she labored with her efforts to learn how to read, sounding out and writing longer and ever-more complicated words. The apprentice was impressed with her ward’s progress, and also by her determination. Yes, the peasant had arrived as ignorant as a rock, but she was determined to overcome her deficient upbringing.
The apprentice liked having Danka with her. She continued to talk to her in a condescending manner and always looked at her as a social inferior, but still, she enjoyed Danka’s company. She could talk freely and test how to express Church doctrine in a way that an ignorant person could understand it. She practiced singing hymns with her ward and in exchange learned several bawdy peasant camp-fire songs. The girl’s very roughness fascinated the fastidious apprentice and opened her understanding of a social group she had only seen from a distance.
During the afternoons Danka accompanied the apprentice on her rounds about the town. She especially enjoyed going to the market and haggling with the vendors over the price of food. The apprentice, coming from a wealthy family, was not worried about saving the Church money during her purchases, an attitude which mystified the peasant girl. Danka instinctively contested every purchase and astonished her mentor by forcing the vendors to cut their prices in half.
The apprentice read passages of both the Bible and the Book of the Ancients and explained to Danka the difference between the two books. She explained that there were two competing factions trying to assume control of the Danubian Church. The faction that controlled Danka’s hometown of Rika Heckt-nemat and Rika Chorna was called the “True Believers”, while the faction controlling Starivktaki Moskt and the main Temple in the capitol called themselves the “Old Believers”. The “True Believers” mostly followed Christian beliefs, including the idea that the Lord-Creator existed in the form of a man and had a son called Jesus, and that Jesus, or the “Son of Man”, was the person to whom most prayers should be directed.
The Old Believers countered that the idea that the Creator could have a human form and also have a son, who was executed by human soldiers of all things, was ludicrous. The Old Believers took most of their philosophy from the pre-Christian Book of the Ancients. They drew some ideas from the Bible, mostly from Ecclesiastes, Psalms, and Isaiah, but their main focus was the Bible’s predecessor, the book that outlined the more ancient beliefs of the country.
The apprentice was very clear where she stood in the conflict. “We are not part of Rome. Therefore, it makes no sense that we should accept the Roman Lord and pray to his executed son. It just makes no sense.”
Danka spent the rest of her time working with the other Penitents. She did not particularly enjoy being with them because their only conversations focused on chores. Protocol determined that a Penitent could not talk about herself or her life. Danka already knew penitents kept quiet around Clergy members, but she was surprised that the penitents also kept quiet around each other. Weeks went by and she knew no more about her companions than she did when she first met them. At first the silence was hard on Danka; to live with people she really could not converse with. Later she realized how much the silence worked to her advantage, because after the initial scare she had with the Senior Priest, no one questioned her motives or her right to live under the protection of the Church. Whatever her faults, she was accepted as a full member of the household.
Three times a week all of the women associated with the Temple gathered in the Cathedral to sing. Priestesses, seminary students, and penitents combined their voices in religious hymns and “formal” music. The majority of the songs were unaccompanied by instruments, but each woman’s voice had a unique role in the songs. From the first day, the music director expected Danka to fully participate and learn where she needed to add her voice to each composition.
Danka felt more at peace with herself during the singing than at any other time of the day. She was part of something much bigger: just one voice among many, and yet with a unique role. She applied herself during the songs, determined to add her part to the women’s collective effort. The music itself, sad, beautiful, and peaceful, calmed her nerves and helped her to push aside the trauma of her exile and the stress she was under trying to become literate. She felt enchanted with the Creator’s peace during the practices and was always disappointed when they ended.
For several days after arriving, Danka wondered if there were any male seminary students or male penitents working for the Temple in Starivktaki Moskt. At the end of the second week a group of dirty naked young men returned to the Temple with a wagon train loaded with supplies. There were over 20 men altogether. The majority were wearing penance collars, but eight were not. The eight un-collared men knelt before the Senior Priest and waited for him to look over several purchase documents related to the group’s outing. Danka noticed the eight female seminary students waiting anxiously with bouquets of flowers, including her mentor. As soon as the men were dismissed, each paired up with one of the women. Following protocol, the women gave the flowers to the men and the men gave a basket of fruit to the women. They left to eat together and chat about the trip.
Danka later learned that Danubian Priests and Priestesses from the “Old Believers” sect were expected to marry upon graduating from the seminary and before taking vows. That was why there was always the same number of male and female trainees attending a seminary at any time, because an unmarried person could not join the Clergy. Courting a marriage partner during seminary studies was as important as pursuing theological topics, given that Priests and Priestesses spent their lives working in pairs and were expected to have a close and flawless relationship.
The two older female penitents led the men to a Temple storage annex to offload the supplies. Unlike the seminary students, there was no relationship at all between any of the male and female penitents. Most of the men did not even live on Temple property, but instead were staying with family members. Their life circumstances were different from the women as well; most expected to wear their collars no more than a year or so and then resume normal lives. The women lived with the Clergy because their situation was much more long-term and their families had rejected them.
After two months of struggling with the strange world of letters and words, Danka was more-or-less literate. She had so pleased the apprentice that the trainee approached the Temple Senior Priest and asked to be given several pieces of parchment and an ink-well. Now Danka could practice writing on real paper with a real quill, instead of scratching letters in sand. Over the next several days the peasant filled every spot on the sheets with letters, words, and sentences. The apprentice triumphantly returned to the Clergy with the papers, showing them that she had managed to teach an illiterate adult how to read and write.
Now, finally… Danka could decipher Farmer Orsktackt’s letter. Laboriously spelling and sounding out each word, she read the following:
If you are reading these words, then you will understand I was correct about you and that it is your Path in Life to be much more than the peasant I saw in my orchard. I do not know what your Path in Life will be, but I am confident it is not to dig wells and steal apples. The Lord-Creator has much more planned for you.
I am giving you a silver coin. I ask that you keep it with you and not spend it unless your life depends on it. The purpose of that coin is to keep you alive, should the need arise. This way, no matter what your struggles, you will never be completely destitute, you will always have what you need for an emergency. Just remember, once the coin is spent, it is spent.
You will discover that life is like your coin. Once you spend your precious time on something, that time is spent and you will never have it again. Remember to appreciate every moment and every opportunity the Lord-Creator has granted you.
I wish you safe passage and happiness. I did what I could to give you the chance to escape. The rest is up to you.
Tuko Orsktackt – Rika Heckt-nemat Farmer’s Guild
Danka folded the letter and picked up the coin. She spent a long time staring at it, memorizing every detail. She had wondered what to spend it on. In spite of the apprentice’s skepticism about her plan to buy a dress, she had thought about using it for that purpose. However, there would be no dress purchase, because Danka now realized she was obligated to keep the coin with her. Its purpose was to save her life and it could not be spent on anything more trivial.
Danka was so immersed in her day-to-day activities that she failed to notice the passing of the summer. She did not keep track of dates, but had she been working outside she would have noticed the changes among the plants and animals signaling that autumn was fast approaching and the unpleasant dark days of winter were only weeks away. She didn’t think about any of that: she was too immersed in her literacy and theological studies to notice anything going on immediately outside the Temple. At the end of August, her seminary mentor assigned her first full-length book: a theological training manual for children about to become teenagers. The assignment signaled that by the end of the summer Danka was reading at the level of a 12-year old.
On the first day of September hundreds of nervous-looking children and their parents gathered in the town plaza, while the seminary women, the penitents, and several Priestesses stood on the Temple steps singing Church hymns. The ceremony was for the annual Departure from Childhood, a ritual that, during the 1700’s, was held once each year in most of the provincial towns. Traditional Danubian society considered a person as a child until the age of 12 and an adolescent over the next three years. Adolescence was the most difficult period of a Danubian’s life, because young teenagers no longer could live the care-free existence of a child, but did not yet have any of the rights of an adult. The girls would not braid their hair, nor the boys shave their heads, for another three years. However, they were about to experience the difficult reality of assuming adult responsibilities.
The 12-year-olds were wearing black prayer robes and each was carrying a toy. Each was accompanied by a younger child, either a sibling or a cousin. The 12-year-olds and their companions assembled at the steps of the Temple, while the other family members knelt in the Temple plaza.
The Senior Priest and his wife stood on the steps, waited for the choir to finish their last song, and addressed the public. His speech was the one he gave every year about the Creator’s Path in Life and personal transition. He began with one of the few passages from the Christian Bible’s New Testament that was still quoted among the “Old Believers”:
“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abides faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.”
The Priest paused for several moments as the assembled children fidgeted nervously. Finally he continued:
“The time has come for you to put away your childish things. It is your Path in Life. Whatever joys you had as a child have passed. Your Path in Life now will be totally different. The Creator commands that you put away all childish things.”
The older children responded by handing off their toys to the younger ones. The younger children scampered back to their families, each happy to have something that had been treasured by their older sibling. The custom stipulated that the item given away had to be the adolescent’s favorite toy or childhood item, the loss of which officially marked the end of the first phase of the Path in Life.
The choir sang another hymn before the Senior Priest continued. There was a lengthy prayer to the Creator, asking for guidance for this year’s group of adolescents, along with the hope their lives will be charitable – that the presentation of the toy will be only the first selfless act out of many throughout their lives.
Danka recalled with bitterness the year she turned 12. She had to give up her only doll to her sister, who passed it to a friend who immediately lost it. That was the day she learned that her Path in Life was indeed to serve. She would give and Katrinckta would take. The Lord-Creator had determined that she would give charity, but not expect any in return. As a result, Danka’s bitterness against both her family and the Lord-Creator festered over the following three years. If that is my Path in Life, then I will find a different Path in Life. I have no reason to accept the Lord-Creator’s plans for me. I hate the Lord-Creator and I’ll say that to his face if he ever has the courage to confront me. If I have to suffer the Hell-Fire for it, then I’ll just deal with it when the time comes.
Now she was watching other adolescents forced to surrender their childhood. She felt sorry for them, because her own life after turning 12 had been nothing but hardship and misery. She wondered how many of those girls standing in black robes would be stuck in equally grim Paths in Life.
The passing of September 1 reminded Danka that the summer had ended and that the weather would be changing within a few weeks. Already she noticed the days rapidly shortening and the nights becoming less and less comfortable for being outside with no clothing. When she arrived in Starivktaki Moskt her intention had been to stay just a few days, but the lure of living in a comfortable place and learning how to read encouraged her to postpone her departure.
She expected the Clergy to tell her to move out at some point. However, by the end of the summer it seemed that was not going to happen. She was doing what she was supposed to do and earning her keep. The seminary student rarely left the Temple grounds without having the penitent go with her, which pulled Danka away from the more routine chores in the house. If the other penitents resented Danka continuously leaving, they never said anything about it. It was clear she was following the orders of her mentor, not acting on her own.
During most of her time at the Seminary, Danka’s only real interaction with anyone was with her mentor. The relationship was a strange one: Danka was not only the trainee’s unofficial student, but also her personal assistant, sidekick, companion, servant, and confidant. She could never be completely sure how she would be treated when the trainee whistled at her to set down what she was doing and depart on yet another outing. Usually the seminary student was totally bossy and condescending, but there were other times she shared her doubts and frustrations, treating the penitent in the same way she’d treat a close friend.
For Danka the interactions were a welcome break from the silence of her companions and kept her from getting bored, even when her mentor was not being pleasant with her. More importantly, whenever Danka had to talk to any of the Clergy members, the seminary student took it upon herself to go with the penitent and speak on her behalf. Danka was still very intimidated by the Priests, so it was a relief not to have to converse with them.
Right after the Path in Life ceremony for the 12-year-olds, the Church women’s choir began practicing for important celebration that the “Old Believers” had revived, the Day of the Dead. The Day of the Dead was important to both factions of the Danubian Church, but all of the details, even the date on which it was held, differed. The “True Believers” celebrated at the beginning of November, the date it was celebrated in other parts of Europe. The “Old Believers” celebrated on the date of the September equinox, in deference to pre-Christian traditions.
During the mid-eighteenth century, the Old Believers held their version of the Day of the Dead in two places, the capitol Danubikt Moskt and the provincial center Starivktaki Moskt. In both places Temple apprentices and penitents commemorated the equinox by painting their bodies with chalk and charcoal to assume the appearance of dead spirits. The body painting was simple, but the resulting appearance was totally sinister, halfway between a ghost and a skeleton. Starting in the mid-1800’s the number of marchers and the length of the march would increase considerably when the Ministry of Justice mandated that collared criminals also would participate each year they wore a Ministry collar. However, the judicial reforms of the late 1700’s had not yet taken place and during Danka’s life collared criminals had little contact with the Danubian Church.
After sunset the townsfolk gathered in the Temple plaza and knelt in their traditional black prayer robes. There was a lengthy service while the penitents and seminary students slowly marched around the plaza carrying torches. The torches were the only light in the city that night, because all other fires and lanterns had to be extinguished.
It was common for the torch bearers to have visions during the march, and that night Danka had one. The fire from the torches merged into a massive fire in her imagination. It seemed all of the Duchy was burning, city after city. Among the burning ruins she saw thousands of bloody corpses. When she recoiled from them, they reached out to her. She screamed and tried to step back, but there were just as many corpses behind her as in front. There was no escape.
Suddenly everything went black. She was standing alone in a forest clearing. A large owl was staring at her. The forest around the owl went black, and then the owl itself slowly vanished, until just the unblinking yellow eyes remained. They slowly became larger and larger, until they filled Danka’s entire vision.
“You know your true Master, Danka Siluckt. It is I.”
“No. I don’t. I don’t know you.”
“Ahhh, but you do, Danka Siluckt. Remember what the scripture says: ‘The Destroyer enters the Realm of the Living through the mouth of the liar’. You will not escape from me, liar.”
Danka woke up. She was still marching.
No. No. No, That was just a bad dream. Had to be… no relation with reality… best to forget. Yes… forget… not tell anyone… bad dream… just a bad dream… just stay at the Temple… focus… forget… try to forget…
Historian’s Note: The Danubian Clergy was completely unaware of the ruse being used by the Farmer’s Guild involving counterfeiting penance collars to safeguard their currency couriers. Had anyone from the Danubian Church realized that Danka was wearing a fake collar, the resulting scandal would have huge. It is likely the Clergy would have taken Danka to the Great Temple in Danubikt Moskt and she would have been interrogated until she gave up the person who gave her the collar. The Danubian Church then would have investigated the Farmer’s Guild and tracked down the artisans that were making the group’s collars. The Church leaders would have approached the Grand Duke to request the execution of the artisans and the dissolution of the entire Guild. By 1750 Public Penance had become extremely important to the Old Believers as they sought to restore ancient practices to the Duchy’s faith. Even in modern times, wearing the penance collar with devotion and piety remains one of the most sacred tenants of the modern Danubian Church. Using a collar for something as worldly as moving money would be considered a heinous act of blasphemy in Danubia.
So, what motivated Farmer Tuko Orsktackt to give up his guild’s counterfeit collar, considering the risk it involved? The answer was that there were some circumstances unique to Rika Heckt-nemat’s society that set the town apart from the rest of the Duchy, most notably the inhabitants’ tendency to fall into bouts of mob hysteria. The panic over the Beelzebub story was typical of the town’s behavior at the time. The fact that Farmer Tuko Orsktackt was willing to take such a huge risk by giving Danka his collar indicates the extent of the danger he believed he had placed himself and his family in by rescuing her.
– Maritza Ortskt-Dukovna –