What are you doing, silly?
I was five years old when I was first by the sea—my parents’ employers had given them a free trip to a Sochi health resort. Every day the weather was fine. My spirit soared, and how could it be otherwise when mama and papa are near, everyone around is laughing and having fun, swimming in the sea, eating ice cream, playing ball…
After a few days into the vacation I felt at one with the water, although I didn’t know how to swim. When my parents’ attention was diverted for a second, I waded into the sea alone. I decided that was not enough, and moved further away from the shore. One step, then another, and it seemed harmless, my feet still felt the bottom; so I waded out further till the water was up to my shoulders. Something whispered to me, “Stop!” But I wanted so badly to be independent and grown up… I told myself, “I’m a gymnast, I’m not at all afraid of the beams or strict trainer. I’m so brave! And the caressing sea couldn’t possibly hurt me, it can’t scold me.” So I went further out.
Suddenly, there was nothing under my feet! In a panic I beat the surface with my fists, my head quickly engulfed by the waters. I was able only several times to push myself up from the bottom to get a breath of air—several seconds of fruitless struggle and then emptiness and darkness.
I came to on the shore. I didn’t understand what had happened; it was terribly frightening, my teeth were chattering from the cold, and my hands were trembling. I saw the doctors fussing around me, saying something to my parents, shutting their cases with a click. True, their movements were somehow strange, somehow drawn out, like at the Olympics or championships when they show the runners’ push off or the figure skater’s movements in slow motion. I saw next to me a man with large, kind eyes and a reddish beard. He placed his hand on my head and said, “What are you doing, silly?” Your mama has a bad heart, and her blood pressure has gone up…” His voice was gentle and loving.
My mother came up to me and hugged me; she smelled like bitter medicine. “Sasha, Sashenka…” was all she could say through her tears. The doctor quipped as he and the paramedics turned to leave, “No desert for three days—or even better, give her a little vitamin B (for belt)!” I thought to myself, how uncouth! How can they talk to a child in such a raspy voice?
After the medics had left, I saw how that the unknown man who had just been next to me had now disappeared. Regardless of my fright and young age, I understood that the kind man didn’t resemble a doctor or orderly. He had no stethoscope or white jacket… And his hands were different—when he touched my forehead they imparted warmth. It was a warmth that has nothing to do with the weather, and you can’t measure it with a thermometer. It’s like when you feel bad and you cuddle up to your mother, and your troubles go away. Neither could he have been one of the vacationers. I can’t say exactly what he was wearing—something blue, but definitely not a swimsuit.
My parents often recalled that day. Interrupting each other in turns they would retell the story: Papa saw my little head bobbing up and disappearing under the water, and of course he immediately threw himself into the sea. Mama, who never learned to swim, stood on the shore and called for help. There was a huge stir on the beach—someone dived into the water, someone suggested where to swim to get me, while others ran for the doctors and lifeguards. But rather quickly a wave came and threw my gasping self to the shore, right into my mother’s arms. Moreover that day the sea was very calm, and after that lifesaving wave it was tranquil again.
The narrative would always end emotionally: “It’s just a miracle how it happened! No one could understand where that wave came from!”
I always wondered who that man was with the beard, who wasn’t dressed for the beach. I asked my mother about him, and she looked at me strangely, startled. “What man? There wasn’t anyone with a beard nearby!”
But I disagreed. “That’s not true! There was a nice man. I was so afraid and I thought I was going to die. I thought I was already dead. That nice man stroked my head and I stopped being afraid, I was so happy that I was still alive. He had a voice like papa’s—kind—and his hands were warm like yours. He didn’t scold me, he didn’t want to give me any vitamin “B”. He felt sorry for me! Probably he also nearly drowned in childhood, and so he knows how bad I felt.”
“You were just scared, and because you hadn’t breathed for a little while something probably seemed to happen like that. That happens sometimes, it will go away,” my mother reassured me.
I didn’t argue with her or ask again about the stranger in order not to upset or frighten my parents. But I know for a fact that there definitely had been a very sensitive stranger there.
The years went by, and that incident unfortunately began to fade from my memory. I likewise forgot the kind stranger. But for a long time I was afraid not only of the sea, but even of the swimming pool.
Little-by-little my fear subsided and I learned how to swim beautifully.
“Shame on you! She’s going to be a mother in just a few months!”
Some twenty years on I again met that kind stranger.
And he saved me again. Only this time it wasn’t in the Black Sea, but in Moscow; and not in summer but in winter. I was expecting a child. My pregnancy was complicated: toxemia, dizziness, weakness, and the threat of miscarriage. The doctors warned me to live without stress, to have only good thoughts and emotions—otherwise I would lose my child. They told me that I needed to hold on for the first trimester, and later it would be easier. With God’s help, the dangerous period passed.
The doctors advised me to spend more time in the fresh air, and to take walks. I myself love to take walks in Ismailovo Park. On that winter day I was taking my usual route: through the entire stretch of woods to the Ismailovo metro station. About fifty meters from the park exit to the station, four dogs appeared before me. They were aggressive and huge.
To say that I was afraid would be saying nothing at all. I froze on the spot and wanted very much to run, but thank God, my feet wouldn’t move from the fright. I tried to cry for help but my “shout” was more resembling a pitiful squeal. There was no one anywhere around. I looked at the angry dogs, and they looked at me. I naively covered my belly with a ladies’ purse and repeated silently, “Lord, save me! Lord, have mercy on my child! Maybe I’m worse than anyone and deserve something terrible, but my little one is innocent—save him!”
I don’t know how long this stand went on, but suddenly I heard a voice saying, “Daughter, don’t be afraid—they’ll go away now and won’t bother you.”
Into my mind came, “Papa?” But what is he doing in here the woods when he lives in another town?”
I turned around and saw a man walking over, smiling lovingly at me, and saying to my four-legged offenders, “Go away, get out! Aren’t you ashamed? She’s going to be a mother in just a few months, and you’ve given her such a fright! She’s not supposed to get stressed!”
The strays gave me a guilty look (they didn’t even seem so fearsome anymore), turned around and submissively loped after the kind pedestrian.
I stood on that spot for a long time and couldn’t understand what had happened. I reached the metro station. Then in the 1990s, grannies would stand on the steps of subway stations selling sunflower seeds, knitted goods, and homemade jam. I asked them whether they had seen where that man with four stray dogs had gone. They replied in the negative.
I entered the underground, and unconsciously sat in a train that was headed in the opposite direction from my home. Thus did I find myself at the Bauman station, where the Theophany Church is located. That is where I had been baptized several years before my marriage and church wedding.
In the church I went to the candle seller’s desk and absent-mindedly twiddled the pencils, shuffling the papers for prayer commemoration.
I probably looked frightened and strange. The woman behind the desk asked me, “Are you okay? Do you need some water? Should I call an ambulance? You’re all pale as a sheet. Don’t be shy, tell me.”
“Some dogs were attacking me but I was saved by an unknown passer-by. He just waved his hand and said a few words to the dogs, and they left me alone.”
“What a nice passer-by!” Thank God that there are such brave and helpful people! Place a candle for him, put his name in for prayers…”
“But that’s the thing! I didn’t even thank him, or ask his name!”
“You got confused, that happens… It’s scary when you’re surrounded by dogs…” Everyone was showing me sympathy. It was just about time for evening services, and people were gathering to write prayer lists and place candles.
“It was an unbelievable story. At first it seemed to me that the stranger was speaking in my father’s voice, and then I remembered something that happened in my early childhood, when I almost drowned…”
“What does childhood have to do with it?” someone interrupted me.
“When I regained consciousness on the shore, I saw a stranger with a beard. Well, he looked like the passer-by who saved me today from the dogs. He hasn’t changed after all these years. I will never forget his eyes—they were kind and loving. I didn’t say ‘thank you’! I didn’t forget to call for help, but when it comes to saying thanks, I forgot. And you say write a prayer note…”
One of my interlocutors advised me to go to the icons and thank the saints, to simply pray for the helpful passer-by. The woman at the candle desk took me by the arm and led me around the church. I asked her if I could venerate the large icon of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker. She nodded, and gave me a large wax candle.
I placed the candle in the candle stand, and as I neared the icon I shouted so loudly that the whole church could hear: “That’s him!”
My companion was alarmed. “Who is he?” she said.
It’s him, St. Nicholas the God-Pleaser, who just saved me in the woods. And he’s also the one on the seaside who calmed me down, and hadn’t let me drown. How didn’t I understand it right away!? I love to pray at this icon and other icons of St. Nicholas. I have read so much about help from St. Nicholas at sea, in prisons, and in all kinds of trouble. Why is it that I’ve only figured it out now and recognized my “stranger”?
The woman smiled. “It means you weren’t ready to recognized him before. The Lord, His saints, and the Mother of God are always with us, but we just don’t see it.”
It’s interesting that the last incident happened to me just a few days before his winter feast day, on December 19…