Silence fell. Outside the traffic was still quite busy and there were occasional bursts of talking and laughter from groups of people going up and down the road. But, in a strange way, that just made the silence in the room all the more intense. Fyodor Mikhailovich twitched the curtain again and peered out.
“You have a good view into other people’s apartments from here,” he remarked.
I laughed. “I suppose we do, though I try to avoid looking if I can help it—no one seems to bother too much with curtains, not above the first floor, anyway!”
“No, but it’s nice to see all the Christmas trees, isn’t it?”
“Yes, I suppose it is.”
“But you don’t have one?”
“No. We did when James was young, but we stopped a couple of years ago. I think of it as something for the children.”
“That’s a shame. I like a Christmas tree.”
“Really? Excuse my ignorance, but did they have Christmas trees in Russia in your time? I always think of them as more German.”
“Maybe they started in Germany but, yes, they were quite popular, at least in Petersburg. In fact, I even wrote a story about one.”
“You did? Really? I don’t know it.”
“That’s because you haven’t read my Diary of a Writer,” he responded, smiling broadly and, I thought, rather wickedly. “Though it’s also in one of those collections of stories you have on your shelves. But perhaps you haven’t read them either?”
“I’ve dipped in,” I said weakly.
“It’s a good story,” he said, “and, I think, rather important. It’s about a little boy. His mother has brought him to the city, but they have no money to buy food and, as always happens, she dies of cold and hunger in the basement where they’d lived. The boy, who maybe doesn’t even know she’s dead, goes out into the streets and, as he wanders about, he sees the brightly lit windows of the wealthy houses with their Christmas trees and parties. He even tries to go in to one of them but is quickly shown the door, as you can imagine. How he’d love to be amongst the girls and boys gathered round the tree, receiving their gifts. Then, he falls asleep behind a woodpile. In his dreams he finds himself flying up to heaven and there is Christ with a Christmas tree he has prepared for all the orphaned children, where they can be reunited with their poor sinful mothers. In the morning, they find him—dead. Naturally, the way I wrote it is more detailed, quite a tear-jerker, if I may say so, though it’s just a story, a made-up story—but one that’s happened many times.”
Even in that brief summary, the story about the dying boy and the Christmas tree jogged a distant memory of having once heard it read in a Christmas service on television. But it was a long time ago.
“I can imagine that you tell it very powerfully,” I said, adding that I promised to read it this Christmas. However, I did want to know a bit more than what Fyodor Mikhailovich had told me. “But look,” I continued, “on the basis of what you’ve said, it sounds almost like an anti-Christmas story, as if all the stuff about Christ’s Christmas tree is just a fantasy and powerless against the reality of suffering?”
We were now standing quite close together, looking out at the apartments opposite, about half-a-dozen of which had brightly lit Christmas trees in their windows. Fyodor Mikhailovich spoke very quietly, very deliberately.
“As I say at the end of that story and as I said to you during our first meeting, I’m only a writer. I make things up—though I have to admit that I got the idea for this from a German poet, but then (of course) I made some changes over and above transferring the story to Petersburg.”
“In the German’s version—a bit like Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘Little Match Girl’—the child dies and goes to heaven. That, you see, is sentimentality, as you’d call it. Unearned emotional gratification. But writers can’t tell you anything about the next life and they shouldn’t try to make us forget the terrible suffering that life on earth is for many, many, far too many people. What they can and should do is to show another possibility, to show that there’s more to life than the sum of facts about the world. There are also dreams and—who knows?—maybe dreams are a conduit for connections to other worlds? But the writer can’t say that is so. He can only suggest, only sow a seed of hope—and then it’s up to you, the reader, to do with it as you will.”
“It still sounds to me like a rather tragic story.”
“Think of it as an icon.”
“An icon? I don’t get it. How?”
Turning back to the room, Fyodor Mikhailovich pointed to a card at the near end of the mantelpiece, which showed the Orthodox icon of the Nativity. I walked over and examined it more closely. In the middle was Mary, lying down with her infant son, in a cave in a mountain, behind which appeared the angels. I could also identify shepherds and a very modestly dressed trio of wise men (no jewels or retinues!), as well as someone who was presumably a midwife, washing the new-born baby.
“It’s an interesting image—but I don’t see the connection to your story. Can you explain?”
“Hmm. As I just said, I should really be leaving it to you, the reader, to work it out—but these are, I suppose, rather unusual circumstances! So … the mother lying in the cave becomes the mother lying in the basement; the child in his mother’s arms becomes the child abandoned and alone; the child to whom wise men offer gifts becomes the child who isn’t allowed to have any presents from the Christmas tree; the child who is the Word of life becomes the child who dies behind the woodpile …”
“But, Fyodor Mikhailovich, that makes your story a complete inversion of the icon, some might even say blasphemous!”
“They might—but they should also remember what He said of the hungry, the naked, and the prisoners: ‘in as much as you do it to the least of these, you do it to me’. This means it is not the lovely well-fed children dancing round the Christmas tree who are the image of Christ, angelic as they are, but the children abandoned by the world, they and their ‘sinful mothers’. The icon shows us how history looks when it is, so to speak, seen from heaven—but if you want to see Christ in the world, that’s where you have to look. Behind the woodpile.”
This was thought-provoking. Somewhere I’d heard icons described as windows onto heaven, but the way Fyodor Mikhailovich put it would be better described as an inverse image of earth that was also, somehow, at the same time, connected with earth, a possibility, a vision of what earth could, perhaps, become …