Let me make things clear right from the get-go. I’m not a believer.
I don’t believe in supernatural geezers with unkempt beards and such, even though I deeply respect religious liberty. Even if you’re a passionate parishioner of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and wear a colander instead of a hat, I promise that as long as you don’t try to hang spaghetti from my ears, I’m completely tolerant.
Well… actually, I don’t know why I started with this declaration. I wanted to tell you something quite different. I wanted to tell you about Eugene.
I noticed him when I was going to my yoga class. I normally wouldn’t have paid attention to yet another beggar on the street if he hadn’t been busy with a pretty unusual thing.
Now, you could say, “Tati, what’s so unusual about needlework? Embroidery is no big deal.” Yes, I would agree if it had been my grandma at the local stitch club ‘Tweedle-Needle’, but not a messy, homeless vagrant sitting on the ground near a central mall—right on the passage between two crossroads. This guy looked absolutely canonical. Long dirty grey hair and beard, rags, a bag full of undefined stuff, a plastic cup with coins, and a frame with an art canvas.
I slowed down a little, but decided it wasn’t too polite to goggle at someone so openly. Even flotsam and jetsam have a right to privacy. So, I walked past, squinted at him, pretending that I didn’t care. In fairness, it must be said that he was so involved with his creative process that he would hardly have noticed me anyway.
This man became my favorite scene on my way to yoga. Three times a week, I was passing near him and glancing furtively. I was feasting my eyes with him. I was seeing a flower-piece motif blooming in his hands, taking on its eventual colors and form. (By the way, he was embroidering with beads—I noticed this a bit later.) Also, I noticed his emaciation, the hampered movements of his hands, and a pair of crutches. As well as his funny hipster-like glasses with a pink rim.
As I was passing near him one day, I began to wonder where he had learned his craft, and how he’d gotten the beads and canvas and such… I then realized that he’d almost finished the picture, and I was risking losing the pleasure of seeing him create. The solution was obvious. I decided to buy him a set for beading.
I stood before a shop display, looking like a cow gazing at a new gate. I’m not an experienced buyer of fancy stuff, you know. After some deliberation, I chose a portrait of some old man who reminded me of the vagrant. A label informed me that the man in the portrait was Sergius of Radonezh. Okay. I didn’t care what the vagrant would embroider. My only concern was to make sure he kept embroidering.
“Good afternoon. I bought this for you. I hope you’ll like it.”
He didn’t react. Today he was busy with weaving love beads. A nearly empty cup with alms, like black sheep, stood right between the plastic cups filled with colorful beads and trinkets.
Up close, his angularity was more evident. My mind even made a strange connection with the image of a broken tree that had crooked twigs-hands and knobby roots-legs. The real Leshy right in the middle of downtown.
I repeated my message—a bit louder this time. He raised a blank stare toward me. Maybe he’d become estranged from people greeting him in a polite, formal way, but some moments later it dawned on him. His face broke into a nicked smile.
“Why, it’s Saint Nicholas!”
I didn’t see the principal difference, and so I nodded. Okay. Have it your own way.
He turned out to be an absolutely adequate human being, with clear speech, a nice smile, and kind grey eyes. He told me his name was Eugene and that he was homeless, but that he wasn’t an alcoholic or a drug-user—he was making and selling handicraft. I listened politely, waiting for a pause. When he reached out for a cardboard box with bracelets, I quickly murmured some excuses that I was running late for my yoga class, and ran away. I didn’t want him to start pressing his ‘product line’ onto me. I didn’t need love beads. I just wanted to see how he embroidered when I was going to my yoga. That was all.
After this, everything went on as usual. I was going, he was embroidering. I was passing near him without stopping. Sometimes he was absent—usually when the weather was rainy. Once or twice I saw him with, so to say, a ‘colleague’, a woman. They would sit on the ground together, just talking. She would be eating an ice cream, and I would instantly imagine how he’d buy sweets for his girlfriend—like a real homeless gentleman. Sometimes when I was approaching him, I would see how he’d lift up his face and look at the passersby as if he was seeking someone in the crowd… I would pass him again and again and never stop.
One day, I was standing on the crossroad near this central mall. You know these idiotic double crossroads, what with their asynchronous traffic lights. You manage to cross one part, but before you reach the next part (if you’re not a world champion in the one hundred meter dash of course) the red light turns on. That’s why a bunch of people were hovering on this small patch with me that day, waiting for the green light, and leaking through slits of traffic with the more impatient pedestrians.
So, I stood on this crossroad in the middle of the crowd when someone twitched my sleeve. I turned and saw this woman—Eugene’s girlfriend. She had in her hands a plastic bag.
“Eugene asked me to give you this.”
I didn’t have time to say something. The crowd caught me up and carried me away.
At home, I got the plastic bag out of my backpack and unfolded a piece of cloth. It was a finished portrait. The work looked very neat—bead-to-bead and stitch-to-stitch. Even its underside was tidy.
“Oh, what is this, Tati?”
Damn! Would grandma ever learn to knock before entering my room?
“It’s Saint Nicholas.”
She took the portrait and got her glasses out.
“Nope. It’s Sergius of Radonezh, Tati! He’s a patron of students. Nice work, by the way.”
I shrugged my shoulders. I never could understand how a person who’d spend half a day looking for her glasses (only to finally discover them on her forehead) could remember the names and occupations of a whole pantheon of gaffers.
“May I take this?”
I nodded indifferently and went back to my affairs.
The next day, I discovered that the portrait had been framed then left on my table. At first I took it away, but later changed my mind and put it back. I didn’t want to upset my grandma. The main thing was to not forget to hide it whenever my friends came round. They’d be sure to make a laughing-stock out of me.
Since then, the portrait stands on my table. Forgive me, Sergius of Radonezh and Saint Nicholas, but I call it ‘Reverend Eugene, Vagrant and Embroiderer’. I’m not a believer. I don’t believe in supernatural geezers with unkempt beards and such.
by TETIANA ALEKSINA
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