We were sitting on the steps of an orthodox church, the gold-tipped dome shimmering above like a glorious crown in the sun with an equally above the sandy clamming beaches, overlooking Cook Inlet, and from our vantage point we could see in the distance over the water the snow-capped range of Redoubt volcano.
We were in Ninilchik, Alaska, and we weren’t alone.
There was Cyril.
“Ah, that’s my father up there, watching out for me,” he said, waving an oily hand up towards the bird, swallowing a piece of king salmon he’d dug out of a jam jar propped on his knees. “That’s his spirit hovering.”
He delved his large fleshy index finger back into the jar and pulled out more pink lumps soaked in oil. The rich smell of fish mixed with iodine, kelp and salt from the sea below came wafting over to us on the other side of the step.
Cyril was a still-to-be-ordained orthodox priest standing in at this Church of the Transfiguration until the new priest came to replace the one who’d just died.
We’d first come across Cyril earlier that morning inside the church, hunched up in a chair over a laptop. When we walked in he’d stood up quickly, his black cassock falling down to cover the jeans and Nikes underneath. He’d given us a warm welcome, smiling kindly through his long, dark beard.
We knew his name was Cyril because on the door outside a note had been pinned for visitors saying ‘Cyril” could be contacted at such and such a number if they wanted a tour.
We hit it off well with Cyril, immediately; he’d given us a bit of history first when we stood all three of us in the vestibule of the charming little church, history concerning the Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska, lacing it with titbits of his own personal opinion. We were intrigued, too, by his personal itinerary which he hinted at from time to time.
The Orthodox Church of America, he’d told us in the vestibule, was set up by eight Russian Orthodox monks in 1794 at Kodiak Island when Alaska was part of Russian. The first American Bishop was appointed in 1799 and in 1808 they moved down to Sitka where they built a cathedral, St. Michael’s. St Michael’s became the seat of the Bishop of Kamchatka, the Kurile and Aleutian Islands, and Alaska: an area covering over 2,000 miles. This was the “Golden Age” of the Orthodox Church in Alaska which ended when the United States purchased Alaska in 1867.
Then we came out and sat on these steps and, as he now continued talking, I thought of the golden dome above us, how it flashed in the sun attracting people like us from afar. My eyes then wandered down to the crinkled sand where the tide had gone out. Earlier that morning we’d visited a small shop in the little village down below, an intriguingly untidy if not cosy little shop run by a friendly young woman. We’d browsed over the odds and ends of trinkets on sale: Russian dolls, Native American beads and basketry, silver Russian orthodox crosses, books on old dying cultures and I wandered too far into the nooks and crannies and came face to face with a hot samovar and a table covered in a white frilly tablecloth. “No, that’s private, sorry…” the lady came up, coaxing me away. She told us she lived here with her Russian elderly mother, and indeed shop and home merged together in a weird mixture of cultures and time warps, a curiosity shop where the objects on sale represented a desperate attempt to keep them alive somehow against all the sad odds. Indeed, the Orthodox Church as well as Native American culture here has seen better days.
Back up on the church steps I homed into the animated conversation Cyril was now having with my husband: “Difficult to take a vow of poverty when your salary is only 200 dollars month.” Cyril was waving his oily fingers again.
What had I missed? The flood gates had opened: “But we were sent to be tried, weren’t we? I’m not fully ordained. And won’t be able to be…” He stopped for a moment, his face going sad. “I won’t be able to be ordained if, if I can’t find a wife, you see. You have to have a wife if you want to be ordained. I did have one once. But then we went and got divorced. Well, I suppose some would say that I’m lucky the Church accepted me here, being alone and what. And divorced. But you know, it is lonely.”
We smiled, not quite sure where to go with this information he’d given us. My husband steered the conversation away. “Are you originally from Ninilchik?” In fact is was a question waiting to be asked because Cyril’s face was particularly unusual and very arresting: it was wide-set, and his eyes were almost black, matching his long black hair.
“I’m from the southeast”, he said. “I’m Tlingit.”
That explained his striking physique. My ears pricked up. A Tlingit turned Russian Orthodox. For an outsider that is pretty unusual. He went on: “I’ll be leaving here soon, in September. Off to the seminary on Kodiak, to do my training to get ordained. Three years, starting in September.”
Did I catch a quick grimace? Three years… And Cyril didn’t look young. He must have been in his mid-forties; he was in a hurry. “How can I find a wife there?” he threw up his hands. Well, we hadn’t yet visited Kodiak Island but we’d understood it was more famed for its huge brown Kodiak bears than for its eligible young ladies. “Pray for me, will you?” he said, turning to us. “Our Lord has called me, it was His Will I should do this. So I’m doing God’s Will. One has to show up. Here too, for this church: I’m showing up.”
My mind slipped back to the lady down in the shop; she’d seemed about the same age as him, selling Tlingit wares. Perhaps he was trying something there with her? But that was none of my business…
He took us over to the cemetery and we wandered round the graves. One was cluttered with garden ornaments, miniature wheelbarrows, a gnome leaning over a garden fork, another lying on its side nonchalantly, propped up on his little elbow with a dreamy look on his face. Further along a tiny polar bear stood stone upright at the head of an infant’s grave, surrounded by a plethora of toys the poor baby had not been granted time to play with. Sad infant graves which we walked round in silence, each grave with the three barred Orthodox cross.
We came back to the church and sat down on the steps again. Cyril sunk his hand into his robe pocket and pulled out another pot of his king salmon. “Take some,” he held the jar out to us. Despite it floating in oil we tried some and it was utterly delicious, melting like salty cream in our mouths. Perhaps it was the unique setting, the blazing sun with the magnificent scenery and the tales told by this exotic trainee priest which made it taste so wonderful.
I looked up at the eagle, still circling round the brilliant dome. “I tell you, that’s my father watching out for me,” he said. “I am from the Eagle clan.”
“Tlingit, Eagle” my husband started, “I mean, that’s unusual, a Tlingit Orthodox.”
We’d read about Christian missionaries in Alaska who suppressed traditional Native American ceremonies – particularly dancing – and who fiercely forbade the indigenous population from speaking their language, whipping children at school who dared slip up. But that was a long time ago.
“Ah, but the Russian missionaries were different,” he explained. “They let us speak our own language. And they let us dance. I have all my costumes and jewellery, I still wear them sometimes, I still dance. No, the Orthodox Church lets us have our ceremonies too. They are not incompatible. You saw in the church that we have the bible in local native languages, too.”
I thought yet again of the lady down in her shop by the sand, selling Tlingit cloaks. Perhaps she’d seen him dressed up and what a sight it must be, this striking man in all his regalia. All the villagers must know him in his different guises. I secretly wished we could see him in that guise too, he was such an impressive looking man. He went on to tell us that he was raised in Sitka with his father. His father had been an Orthodox priest Cyril had at first resisted his father’s influence and enrolled in the Army where he stayed for six years. Then he became a truck driver in Philadelphia and sometime during this time he married. Then something, we weren’t quite sure what, made him turn to what his father wanted, and now here he was, training to become the Orthodox priest, following in his father’s footsteps.
He looked up again at those outstretched feathered wings. “I tell you, he’s looking after me,” he repeated. “But I’ll need a wife. Please pray for me.”
Razor clams here are the size of babies’ hands
opened up to catch the midnight sun.
They roll in with the tide and lie on sand
full and fleshy, their tumbling journey done.
Above, a Russian church, its golden dome
a gleaming refuge for those who seek a home.
But eagles, ravens coast with eager eye
and clammers armed with spades and knives arrive –
clams bury downwards as the shadows loom
of wings or claws or the clammers spoon
a feast for those who have the craft to find
those rippled markings camouflaged like waves
in sand so fine which cossets them like babes –
babes of the sea who cry on land exposed
under cliff and cloud their little hands tight closed
while up above a Tlingit pastor’s hands
are held in prayer for those who come to land
in Ninilchik, in Cook Inlet, across a glacial bay.