(For Dr. Jószf Sisa)
The rental car lurched left, then right, each tire finding a bigger hole in the road. “Damn it, when did they last repair this? Just before the Soviets invaded?” Gregory kept waiting for an axle to break, or to discover that the water in the holes hid something too deep to get out of, even in first gear. “So much for reaching Eger before dark,” he grumbled. The shadowy face of the mountains loomed to the north, and as he jounced back and forth, Gregory wondered just where the hell the GPS had taken him. “Last time I do this without a back up map,” he grumbled.
The road smoothed out over a bridge, then returned to its former state. Dear Lord, what will this be like after winter? It’d be easier just to let it crumble and grade the remains than to patch, he thought, wincing at an especially loud scraping sound and vibration. But the little Skoda slugged on, somehow, and just as the sun touched the tops of the trees, the asphalt strips separating the holes expanded and blended into what he’d call a paved road. “Thank you,” he whispered. He managed to make it up to third gear and 50 km/hour before a few houses appeared and he slowed again. The hamlet looked safe enough, and Gregory glanced around for a place to pull over and check the car. It sounded OK and the steering felt right, but he didn’t want to discover after dark on a narrow road in a strange land that he’d lost his oil pan or something equally important. He rounded a rising curve and saw a church. “Perfect.”
Gregory pulled into the bare dirt of the parking area. He dug a small flashlight out of his travel bag and stepped out of the car. The air smelled of moist soil and wet leaves, and the westerly wind carried a bit of chill. He crouched down, snapped on the light and studied the Skoda coup’s wheels and as much of the underside as he could see without laying down on the rain-damp ground. “Huh.” Everything looked good, and he didn’t smell oil or transmission fluid. The muffler remained firmly attached, and all four hub caps sat where they should. Apparently Skoda still overbuilt everything, including little blue passenger cars. Gregory flicked off the pocket flashlight and straightened up, looking closely at his surroundings for the first time.
The church sat in a fold in the hills leading to the dark mass of the Matra Mountains. A lush, grassy yard surrounded the building and a gravel path led to the door. Had there once been a cemetery beside the church? He didn’t see any markers, but the large open area had that look to it. The village, whatever-its-name-was, lay to the west, spilling down the hillside to the stream that he’d crossed on the smooth bridge. He could see lights in a few windows, and a larger village to the west, across the valley. Several ridges farther away, a now-decommissioned Soviet-era power plant’s cooling towers loomed against the setting sun. The day’s storms had passed on, leaving the western sky clear for the first time in a week, or so it felt. Gregory stretched, ran a hand through his hair and wondered what next.
“First I reboot the GPS.” He reached in the open window and hit “reset.” The magic map box needed a few minutes to find itself, so he stuffed his hands into his jacket pockets and walked along the gravel toward the back of the church, looking for a convenient bush out of the view of passers-by. Pipes drained, he strolled around to the door of the old church. Instead of the usual Latin cross shape, this one seemed to be a Greek cross, with four equal arms around a low dome, all covered in thick, light-tan plaster that smoothed the corners and edges. Gregory heard nothing but his own steps crunching on gravel and a faint flutter of leaves on the evening breeze. Maybe they didn’t have Sunday services out here, at least not evening ones. But as he turned the sum-warmed iron handle on the aged wooden door, it shifted. Latches slid open and hinges creaked a little as he pushed the heavy panel open and made his way into the church.
Gregory caught himself before he fell down the worn stone steps into the sanctuary. “Hello? Jó estét?” He called, glancing around. Two rows of little white candles flickered in a black metal rack in front of a statue of some saint, and the dim red glow of a Presence candle marked the main altar. No one replied and Gregory shrugged, looking down at the uneven steps to make certain he didn’t fall. He couldn’t imagine why someone had dug almost two meters down from the front door to make the main floor of the church. He didn’t see any chairs or pews in the nave, and wondered if worshippers were supposed to bring their own. He turned right and walked over to the saint, feeling gritty sandstone under his shoe-soles. The church’s walls still held the day’s warmth, and he smelled incense left from an earlier mass.
“St. Stephen. Should have guessed,” he realized, looking up at the almost life-sized statue of Hungary’s patron. The holy king gazed over Gregory’s head, holding a crown in his left hand, the fingers of his right hand folded in the sign of blessing. Gregory turned around and saw a bishop saint behind the altar on the opposite wall. St. Gellért? He peered into the thickening shadows and caught sight of the three bags in the bishop’s hand. “Szent Miklos,” or Nicholas as Gregory knew him. The combination didn’t make much sense, and he shrugged. Then he looked up and gasped.
A starry firmament covered the dome. Gilded dots of stars sparkled out of the shadowy height, and four angels, flanked by three of the beasts of the Evangelists, spread their wings. The wingtips touched at the center of each arm of the Greek cross. All the attribute animals – ox, eagle, and lion – looked toward the main altar, leading Gregory’s gaze to the wide, bottomless brown eyes of the Pantocrator. Pure Byzantine in execution, Christ the Ruler hovered above the altar, the gentle shepherd king, His bearded, calm face inviting all the world into the faith and into union with His love, one hand raised in blessing. Gregory met the ageless Byzantine eyes and marveled. Below the figure, a medieval crucifix stood on the lace-draped high altar. Gregory’s eyes rose again to the Pantocrator.
After some length of time Gregory turned to go. Now he noticed the soot-faded paintings on the walls, showing Cain and Able, more apostles, and blue-clad Mary in the form of the Theotokos, the God bearer, looking down on Sv. Miklos. The Mother of the Lord focused Her attention on the saint, ignoring the man. He shrugged, climbing up the stone steps. He hunted around his pockets for a few forints to drop in the alms box, but couldn’t find the place to leave donations. “Oh well.” Gregory closed the door behind him and returned to the car.
The GPS had done its thing and showed that if he continued past the church, he’d be on the side-road to Eger. As the sun touched the horizon, he backed the Skoda out into the asphalt and headed out. This road proved to be much better than the previous one, and fifteen minutes later he reached the Eger city limits. The navigation system behaved long enough for him to reach his hotel at the edge of the old town before flashing a “signal lost” warning at him. He snorted, turned off the GPS, and went about his business.
The next summer, perhaps nine months after he’d visited the church and Eger, Gregory’s business sent him into that area of Hungary again. He remembered the church and decided to visit it, this time from Eger and by daylight. He didn’t want to imagine what that back “road” must be like now. He passed the spa in the valley, and the signs pointing to Eger, crested the hill and found the village. But no church. Puzzled, Gregory pulled into the post office’s parking area, turned around, and went back the way he’d come. Instead of a church, he found a meadow surrounded by a sagging electric fence. A handful of newly shorn sheep and their lambs grazed in the heavy summer afternoon sun, drowsing as they chewed. Gregory got out of the car and peered into the meadow. No, he remembered the bushes over to the right, and how the hill sloped down into the flat space before rolling up again and dropping away to the west. Everything looked the same, except for the missing church.
“Can I help you?” a voice asked.
Gregory turned to see an age-bent man in faded blue pants and a worn denim farmer’s jacket leaning on a heavy walking stick. “I . . . I don’t know,” Gregory admitted in Hungarian. He turned from the farmer to the meadow and back. “This sounds foolish, but, well, I’m looking for a painted church.”
The farmer nodded and with slow steps came forward until he stood beside Gregory. “You saw an old church with Byzantine paintings. The church of Sv. Miklos.”
“Yes. I thought it was near here.”
The white-haired head turned left to right and back. “A church once stood here, before the Mongols and Turks. Aba Sámuel built it before he became king and hired artists from the southern empire, Byzantium, to paint the walls. Even though the people here followed Rome, they left the paintings as they were. The bishop’s accounts say it was a most beautiful church.”
“Where is it?”
The man looked up at Gregory, his brown eyes sad. “No one knows. When my ancestors came to this village, after the last battles against the Turks, they found nothing. The records from the diocese said it had been here, but no one remembered it. Perhaps the Turks took the stones for the battle at Eger?” As Gregory wondered if he’d gone mad, the man smiled. “But do not worry, you are not the first person to see Sv. Miklos church since then.”
“How do I find it again?”
“You won’t. It finds you when you need it.” And with that the old man walked past Gregory, stepped over the fence, and went to tend his sheep.
Author’s Note: The church is based on the church in Feldebro, Hungary, originally built by Sámuel Aba, and noted for the unusual painted crypt, once the original sanctuary of the first (or second) church.
© Alma T. C. Boykin 2014, all rights reserved.