Hike to the Black Madonna

Christine Stewart-Nuñez Click to read more...

Christine Stewart-Nuñez is the author of Snow, Salt, Honey (Red Dragonfly Press, 2012), Keeping Them Alive (WordTech Editions, 2011), Postcard on Parchment (ABZ Press, 2008), and Unbound & Branded (Finishing Line Press, 2006). Her honors include an Academy of American Poets Award. Her poems and creative nonfiction have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Calyx, Arts & Letters, and North American Review. She teaches in the English Department at South Dakota State University.

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The aching muscles of my calves began to tremble just as the forest broke away. A white river threaded the valley floor far below. I turned to the right and above the tips of pine emerged the Sümela Monastery. This windowed building of six stories—seamlessly carved out of sheer rock—opened to the sky, its arched doorways shrouded in cloud I had perceived as mist from far below.

In 1930, a fire gutted the library, guest rooms, courtyards, church, and monk housing. It was only seven years after the new Turkish government relocated local Orthodox Greeks to Greece. Among the skeletal wall-remains, 1200 meters above sea level, tourists appeared and disappeared; secured to their heads were hardhats the color of lemons, an illusion of safety amid falling rock and slippery walkways.

The clash of the mountain panorama and cliff-side building amplified as I walked among the monastery’s dissolving walls. Graffiti-carved names—Nurten, Yavir, and Nebile—looked like words of prayer. On the interiors of some walls, sun and wind peeled the paint off frescoes even as I studied them. Cut out sections revealed layers of plaster over rough stone. Vandals gouged out saints’ eyes on paintings within arm’s reach. In one, too high for violence, the hand of Jesus compelled Lazarus’s body from an open tomb. And was this Mary, head halo-wrapped, body cloaked in red? At her center, the infant Jesus holding his arms out in blessing. The walls of my childhood church seemed to rise up, and I felt awe just as I did praying before the fourth station of the cross, the priest’s words Jesus meets his mother in my ears.

I stood within these stories overwhelmed by an interior of debris: desire, conception, death, and resurrection held together in stone even as that stone decayed. How was I to know then that the icon—the Black Madonna—serene in her wall niche, was missing? Mary and I gazed at each other with serious eyes, and I searched through a jumble of stories, time and space blurring—a choice to look for the woman inside.

* * *

Trabzon: our school’s-out destination. Neither Chad, my boyfriend, nor I had traipsed across northeastern Turkey yet. With my two-year teaching stint in Tarsus complete, I planned to unwind from an exhausting semester before returning to the States for graduate school. Only halfway through his contract, Chad would be back in Turkey in August. I hoped our time alone would strengthen our relationship before the “long distance” phase.

We walked across tarmac toward a twenty-seater airplane, scarlet-lettered Bodrum emblazoned upon its white paint. A colleague of ours nicknamed Bodrum “Bed Room:” a place to swim, barhop, and seduce tourists. A rather sinful city.

“That’s hilarious. We’re flying to Trabzon in the Bodrum,” I said to Chad, reaching for his hand. “It’s like flying to Las Vegas in the Chastity. Instead of beaches and bars, we’ll be touring Orthodox churches.”

He smiled and slung his arm around my backpack.

I pictured the Sümela monastery, named for a Greek word stemming from “dark” or “black.” Later I would learn about the Black Madonna icon and ponder the incongruity of her slender, European nose and thin lips with her black hair and dark skin. Like all Black Madonnas, her contrasting features inspired conjecture. Centuries of stories, deposited within the vessel of Mary’s body, shifted over time.

Chad sighed and stretched out, staring at the seatback in front of him. I read this as preoccupation, as invitation to initiate conversation. Nearby a passenger shoved a duffel bag into an overhead bin; others squeezed themselves between armrests. I pulled out the seat belt and buckled it across my waist.

“Hey. I’m sure I’m not,” I said to Chad. “I shouldn’t have mentioned I was late until I knew for sure. But if you keep being worried, you’ll make me worried.” I tried to catch his eye.

“We’re always safe, but you said you’re never this late.” Did he think I was lying? “Let’s not talk about this right now.” He pulled out a book from his bag.

The flight attendant’s ring glinted as she set the tea down on the mini-tray on my lap. I plunked a sugar cube into my glass, a tiny vase curved like a woman’s body. The grains of sugar broke free and floated up before merging into the steaming sienna tea. One of my hands drifted to my flat belly, the other to the rim of the glass.

“It’s probably stress,” I said. “If I don’t obsess about it, it’ll come. Besides, this is our vacation. Just the two of us.”

His answer: a squeeze of my hand before opening the book.

I interpreted this as affirmation. As I sipped the hot tea my mind turned the kaleidoscope of possibilities. A half-inch twist changed the geometric slips of paper—me, Chad, school, one year’s time—from a mandala of jewels into an aqua and russet burst, one version of the story. Another? Twelve years of Catholic school burned The Visitation behind my eyes. I imagine Mary’s hair as the color of walnuts. Cooking lamb, she tucks a stray curl under her hair covering and lapses into a daydream about a cute neighbor. Gabriel drops by; her kaleidoscope turns.

“God’s tapped you,” the angel explains. “What do you say?” She’s given a choice and thinks about it, but scripture doesn’t convey silence well. Her “yes” inverts the shape of her future. She could’ve said no.

Minus the angel and miraculous conception, I thought when faced with pregnancy, I’d watch mirrors and light blur the colors before me. I’d search for an answer within.

* * *

With no summit of the Zigana Mountains to inspire us yet, Chad and I trekked the path snaking through the forest. The saturated air infused each deep breath with the scent of pine and slowed my pace. Tight from travel, my muscles strained to push, and I negotiated the curves of the steep ascension with care. Chad’s muscles, remembering thousands of bouldering hikes, propelled him with ease, yet sweat trickled down his neck. After an hour, my t-shirt and jeans stuck to my skin; I wished I had braved shorts despite the stares of disapproval I’d receive. The narrowed eyes of men always conjured fragments of a memory: a man’s hand on my shoulder; a wall closing in; my fingers squeezing his throat; his feet hitting pavement. I still breathed through the anger and fear summoned by memories of this attempted attack. With my blonde hair and blue eyes, had he assumed I was a “Natasha”—a Russian sex worker?

Our steps regularized as the forest thickened, the canopy of leaves shielding us from direct sun. Partway up, Chad and I veered off the main trail and followed an overgrown dirt path. It ended at ruins. We rested on a chunk of stone and sipped from water bottles. The smell of the crumbling house—two partial walls and pile of stacked rubble—was a blend of mold and piss. Perhaps this dwelling had once sheltered pilgrims seeking Sümela’s sacred springs. According to legend, the Black Madonna asked angels to remove her icon from Athens where Saint Luke had sent his painting. Mary chose this mountain and she created a place of healing.

Back on the dusty trail, I focused on my walking sandals, one step in front of the other. Every few minutes I caught a glimpse of a brown trunk swathed in moss or a branch veiled in leaves of translucent green, each leaf a halo of light.

* * *

Chad and I had trouble finding a hotel in Trabzon. On the outside we were tourists—good business—but once hotel clerks opened our Turkish work permits (they designated our status as teachers which often meant cheaper prices) and studied the inside, they read a different story. The permit marked us “single,” but we asked for one room. They scrutinized me, listening to my clumsy Turkish. “No vacancy,” they finally said, snapping the permits shut.

I doubted them. The number of Natashas in Trabzon reinforced their stereotypes of non-Turkish women. I had become accustomed to, although never comfortable with, Turkish men glancing at my short blonde hair and blue eyes and asking me for sex. Walking home from the market, a sack of tomatoes and carrots in my arms, I would pass a small group of men leaning against a wall and smoking cigarettes. Avoiding eye contact that might “invite” a remark, I stared at the back of women’s tight ponytails or fringed headscarves. I imagine one of the smokers noticed my hair first. He probably elbowed his friend. Taking a drag of his cigarette, he would exhale: “Hello, Natasha” followed by a flurry of Turkish. The first month I blushed; the second I glared even though it amused them. When their “Hey, Natasha, Natasha” faded, my neck relaxed, shoulders softened, and pace slowed. I marched faster if one followed me for several blocks. I tried to ignore the ways men interpreted my exterior, the stories they assumed from the color of my hair and eyes.

We secured a hotel room after two proprietors refused us. Nestled among a series of red-shingled businesses, Hotel Nur topped a deeply sloping street. Two steep flights of stairs ended with our room. Once inside the door, Chad took four steps and stood in front of a nightstand between twin beds. The angle of light, streaming from a window, illuminated the thickness of his body, corded muscles from rock climbing softened by slight cushioning—the result of his own great cooking. I dropped my backpack on the right bed and pushed open the only other door. The closet-sized bathroom was just the right size for a saint’s niche. I could imagine Mary Magdalene—from a fresco featured in my guidebook—smoothing out her hair in the mirror. Her elongated fingers and neck, pale cheeks, and somber expression created a version of this woman I didn’t recognize; I always imagined her as curvy, a bit plump even, with knowing eyes, thick, loose hair, and a slight smile on her lips.

Only my head reflected in the mirror above the basin as I washed my hands and face. When I opened the door, Chad stood there, a pregnancy test in his hand.

“Where’d you get this?” I asked, touching the corner of the box.

“Lisa had one and gave it to me before we left.”

My hand recoiled. “You told her?” I wondered how many other friends knew about this possibility.

“Yeah, well I was worried that you’d be worried.”

“I’m not,” I replied, folding my arms in front of me.

* * *

I put off the test by suggesting dinner. At the restaurant a case of fresh alabalık laid out on crushed ice greeted us, reminding me of my father’s autumn catches of trout in the cold streams of northern Iowa. We pointed to two we wanted and ordered tomato and cucumber salad, pita, and lentil soup. I placed a napkin over the head of my fish; its blank, watching eye bothered me as I separated meat from bones. Chad chatted about his plans to leave in three days for the States. I would travel alone for another week before meeting a friend in Istanbul and sightseeing for two weeks with her.

“Do you have to go back this week? Maybe you could change your departure date and go back when I meet Melissa.”

“That would be impossible. I’ve been planning a summer of mountain-climbing and beer-drinking for months.”

I don’t remember the rest of our conversation or if there was one.

When we returned to Hotel Nur, an actual Natasha—the first I’d seen—lingered a few doors down from the entrance. Her body was lean, all angles, especially the way her knees jutted out of her orange mini skirt. The only curve I could see was the curl of her bobbed platinum hair.

Chad insisted on the test. The sun made the burnt-red rooftops shimmer as I turned from him and stepped into the bathroom. His way, I figured, would produce an answer. Clarify things. I eased onto my haunches and balanced over a porcelain hole with cup in hand. Through the crack in the door I heard the call to prayer, and afterwards, a Russian voice arguing with someone on the street below our room.

When Mary Magdalene crashed Jesus’ dinner party, he recognized a fellow healer, one who could soothe with her caress. He touched her chin as she perfumed his feet with oil and turned her face up to his. “Things change,” he said when they were eye to eye. “Come with me. I’ll never leave you alone.”  The next day I would see a fresco of Mary Magdalene with regret painted in her eyes.  She would appear to weep into my hair from the ceiling.

I peed, then handed Chad the stick still wet with urine.

* * *

I wish I could say I saw Sümela’s Black Madonna when I explored the monastery, but her image painted on cracked black wood and framed in eighteenth-century silver metalwork had disappeared. Maybe she resembled Our Lady of Jasna Gora: almond-shaped eyes half closed; a svelte nose lengthening her oval face; complexion the color of coffee with cream; a halo setting off the gold borders of her headpiece. Would her image have inspired me to wash my hands in her sacred spring or put the water to my lips? Perhaps I would have felt a sudden lift of spirit, a tingling from head to toe. I would have been able to step back from my life and trust everything would turn out okay.

Instead, I found stories of Black Madonnas long after my relationship with Chad was over. Two days after the hike, backpack slung over his arm, he climbed onto the airport bus. I waited for him to turn around, to change his mind. His bus roared away, the tires churning up a cloud of dust. On the outside our relationship wasn’t over—and wouldn’t be for another year—but on some level we’d both abandoned it.

I traveled west along the Black Sea following a route the spiritual descendants of Barnabus and Sophronius, the hermits credited with bringing Sümela’s Black Madonna to Anatolia. After the monastery was founded, the two traveled throughout Anatolia, the Balkans, and Russia to sell copies of their famous icon. In Sinop I said a prayer at St. Anne’s, the church of Mary’s mother, whose image time had transformed into a winged figure without a face. Alone in Safronbolu, I rambled into quiet neighborhoods where I watched women hang rugs on clotheslines and sweep stone steps.  Sometimes I stood on the side of a street to watch people sauntering by, worries or hope mapped on their faces. The breeze orchestrated their voices into a medley, tuning into my heartbeat, and I dissolved into the current for a moment.

Some scholars conjecture that artists darkened Mary’s image to illustrate a text from the Song of Songs: “I am black and beautiful;” others associate Black Madonnas with ancient earth goddesses; others say they express a feminine power not fully conveyed by a pale-skinned Mary and link them to Mary Magdalene. Perhaps the painter never intended her to be a “Black Madonna” and soot from centuries of burning candles turned her pigment dark. Perhaps she ended up so many miles from home by accident, a wrinkle in her predestined story. Perhaps she felt obliged to say yes. Perhaps the ways men looked at her fueled her desire to seek shelter—any shelter.

Sümela’s Black Madonna never appeared to me on that hike. She was gone. Or she was everywhere. Inside the monastery, hues of paintings lightened only to be darkened again by shadows of passing clouds. Stones crumbled underfoot—the possibilities in narratives conceived. And that interior debris, what’s left of desire, shifted. I wonder if Mary would choose, as I have, the stories that sustain her. I wonder if she would exist, as I have, in the spaces that they blur.

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