The place of the mind

Agapia is a place of the mind.

Wherever I step, there’s a story that has been put into a text and then pictured in the mind while reading. There was once upon a time a fair princess who fell in love with a mysterious dark prince, got with child and was banished from home by her father. She spent her life in solitude but one day she met him again. They had their wedding in the Silver Forest, which came alive with the feast, moonlight wavering in the creek waters, crickets and bugs making the music, trees sighing, ants and bees marching in to join the wedding guests, butterflies fluttering over the flowers – that Silver Forest is just over this hill here. The story comes from folk tales, but was written as we know it by our greatest bard, a century and a half ago. At the far end of the Silver Forest there is another white monastery. In its graveyard lies the woman who was the love of this bard’s lifetime – another story of love and tears.

Take a look at the gate tower, there’s a clock up there. When it strikes the hour it chimes a melody. We all know it, from our school years basically. Was made some hundred fifty years ago, it’s called the Ballad. Inside the church there are paintings of a classic artist, ask anyone in this country who were our greatest painters and they will tell you his name, even if they’ve never heard of Mona Lisa. Painters and poets and musicians got together here and sat in a writer’s house behind the monastery, watching the evergreen forest on the hill-side from the porch, smoking their pipes and talking about ideas. For the hours of peace and reflection, immersed in this quiet, they left the place a painting, a song, a poem or a book as a thank-you gift. You see, we have a word in Romanian stemming from the Greek Agapia, agapa, which means a get-together among friends. In Agapia they came together, and left their traces here.

But that is not all. The place, I said, is a collection of stories put in some text, either a tale or a history book, which I then pictured in my mind while reading. Not once. Many times, in school, as a kid fretting over the reading tasks, and reciting and quoting and analysing it in a written assignment. And hearing it paraphrased, parodied, hinted at, rephrased, re-used and overused, given new circumstantial meanings, played upon and experimented with. Until it stops being only about the stories themselves, but about myself, my own childhood: me and the history that is alive here, we have our own joint story unfolding over the years. If Agapia was but a collection of relics about the past of these people, it would just be a museum. As it is, though, it is a collection of re-collections of myself discovering that past. The Silver Forest is signifying not just a hoarded piece of heritage, but also my own hoarded memory of the times when I was discovering it. The past of these people, of my people, and my own past – we come together in Agapia.

And a flutter of wonder is always fresh as I ask myself what is this place here, and what is going on? Is this a place on the map, or just my mind gone hard and palpable outside of me and wrapping me all round? Am I strolling round a beautiful landscape, or am I fumbling through my own mind?

 

Andrew went quiet and Peter was dropped into a huge bowl of woolly silence, reinforced it seemed by the rustle of the wind through the woods. The sun had set and the sky got darker and mistier. The intransigent green of the fir trees was spearing its sharpness into the bluish grey of the nightly clouds in a bold contrast. The faultless white of the church walls and of the tiny houses was standing out at the far end of the track and partly dissolving the uncompromising clash of the colours. Behind the church there were wooded hills hunching their backs over and over while the skies looked as if they were dangling in between like the folds of a cloth.

On the nearer side there were houses and enclosures and allotments with dwarfish barns or shelters and now and then one could hear a muffled moo of the cattle. No people could be seen, but the place seemed to be alive if immersed in tranquillity.

The shadow of a tune insinuated itself into the picture. The church clock was striking five in the afternoon and through the veils of the night falling the notes were rippling faintly with a sadness and peacefulness mingled into one. The three visitors started quietly towards the church to the sound of the clock and of their own footsteps, as if they were treading within a setting that was containing them.

Soon the clock went quiet and they continued their walk to the church, whose walled enclosure was getting whiter and more material with every single step. When they were a few hundred feet away it was easy to see that the exterior front wall was thick and solid and the entrance was in the way of an arched vault beneath the lofty clock. The arched passage piercing the wall was dark now, but once they were in they could see the brighter side beyond, ahead of them, still catching the dying out, milky light of the day: the garden and then the church itself, white too, slim and graceful.

The court had a rectangular shape and was closed in by the nuns’ rooms, as well as by other administrative or clerical facilities, all judiciously incorporated in the surrounding walls. The place looked very similar in its structure to a small fort, as it gave the same feeling of safe closure, and like the fort they had visited earlier on, it was anything but large. Once in, a sense of belonging, of being inside, was inescapable. All along the sides of the rectangle there were stocky wooden pillars running along a white-walled passage and on the first floor a veranda with carved wooden banisters and pillars. The flawless white, the tidy veranda, the clean stone slabs, the newly-tiled roof, the solidity of the walls, it all inspired safety and cleanliness, but also hard, unrelenting work.

The silence was now accompanied by a low murmur of voices droning away: the evening service. Some nun scurried across the garden, another bent over the candles by the door to remove the stubs. All the movements were blunted at the edges, it seemed, so as not to produce the faintest stir.

Andrew’s face bore a mysterious mark of reflection. He took in every detail intently, even though he had been there numberless times before. All his features and the whole of his mimic had turned outside in as it were, but had left an unmistakable trace on the façade. In the eyes there were remote glimmers of an intense light, while the lines of the face retained a muscular tension indicating concentration.

Mona had pulled down the shutters instead and called it a day. Her face said nothing although her eyes were travelling all over the place with the proper interest. Peter got the feeling again that she had handed it over to Andrew and was now like an actor without a face.

Indeed, she was to stay with the nuns in the main building that night, while he and Andrew would climb the nearby hill-side to Andrew’s promised home.

They went into the church. Black-clothed figures were planted here and there in different stances, one bending to her knees, one drawing a cross on her chest, one reading from a book the size of a marble slab, others standing still with their faces sunk in. The one that was reading in a chiming voice was accompanied by two or three voices chanting high-pitch tunes that were meandering like a maze within the small and dimly-lit church nave. The thick walls were scantily pierced by dwarfish semi-oval window panes so that one inevitably felt closed in a mystifying space that was shutting one out from the world and delivering one to the unseen-before.

There were paintings of winged beings all round, veiled garments with numberless folds, bony ascetic faces and hands, fingers joined in the gesture of blessing, icons in dark colours, clothed in silver or gold. The paintings represented various religious scenes, whose significances completely escaped Peter with their cryptic symbolism. What caught his eye was the oblong and thin draw of the silhouettes. Nothing was rounded with the plumpness of flesh; it rather remotely conveyed a perception of life merely located in a body, for the painter to have a model. The colours were vivid, but stamped with a mark of spirituality: the red was for blood, the yellow was glowing in sunrays, the dark green glittered like water in a mountain lake, the blue rippled deep and intense in the sky. And yet, because of the sharp lines, nothing evoked colour, rather stateliness.

The church itself was made up of three distinct but not fully enclosed chambers that were successively crossed when approaching the altar. The third one was where most of the light was, candle-light, flowing over from an ancient chandelier as well as from two tall stands on both sides before the altar. Most importantly there was the altar, hidden from the eyes of the believers by an impressive partition covered in gold and painted with small, framed scenes from the Bible. From behind the partition, one could hear the deep voice of a priest, whose low pitch seemed to pull together and bind the chants of the nuns like a sower collecting the sun beams in his haversack. The priest’s service appeared to match the chime of the clock and the call of the bell, urging nuns and laymen alike to join in, to come together in the small church – an agapa contained within the walls of the nave.

Mona’s eyes wandered around taking in apparently the individual details of the objects and of the paintings with a scrutiny that suggested an inventory approach. Andrew instead was holding his chin down in his chest, lips moving imperceptibly, clasping his wrists together in resignation. Peter eyed both his companions in turn and felt lost for a moment between the detached stance of the one and the inward bend of the other. Who was he supposed to mirror? He would by nature and profession been a Mona; the repeated incidents of the past days had however thrust upon him a recognition of his own, inner maps. He would have followed Andrew, then, if only he had any idea whatever those inner maps might be all about.

It was Mona, however, who went out first, with a sudden gesture of apparent impatience, in the way of saying OK, that’ll be it for me. Peter was startled and quickly turned his eyes to Andrew, wondering if he is going to show any sign of being put out. Andrew opened his eyes while still keeping his head bent, as if taking in the change that had occurred in the environment, then his face was lit up with a broad smile. He raised his head and gazed at Peter smiling in consent, then nodded slightly and led him out of the church.

In the chilly crepuscular air, by contrast now only faintly resonating with the nuns’ chants, Peter took a deep breath finding himself back on the outside again.

“Can you tell us any of your exciting stories about this place, like you did at the fortress?” Mona asked with a somewhat inappropriate abruptness.

Andrew sniffed with the same broad smile and shook his head,

“No, no stories here, not now”, and Peter felt relieved. He was getting restless, eager, almost anxious to follow Andrew to the place he called home. There had been too much of sight-seeing in this world, he felt. It was time to turn into cold, fresh sheets, hear the muffled silence permeated with the smell of rough linen and wool, and let himself sink.

 

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