Sergei Cherlin has been in Antarctica for eight months.
They do one-year tours of duty, he and his fellow hieromonks. It may sound dreadful, but he’s actually enjoyed his time here. Despite the location, Bellingshausen Station’s Trinity Church is a typical church with typical worship services, more or less. They held a wedding a few years back, because even glaciologists fall in love. It is an anchor of normalcy in an environment of extremes, and it’s quiet here, which suits him. Calm. Cold, but King George Island is not as cold as the rest of the continent. Hovering at only a few degrees below freezing, the station is known as kurort - Russian for ‘resort’. Correspondence with the Americans in McMurdo Station usually involves at least one jibe about the weather. You guys sure you won’t run out of sunscreen?they’d ask. McMurdo Sound usually never gets above freezing point, poor bastards.
Nikolay once said that if you give the planet a good shake, all the detritus falls to the bottom, and that is how anyone ends up in Antarctica. “You’re either looking for something or running from something,” he said when the two monks first met. “So which is it for you?”
Sergei had replied, “I’m here for God.”
If God still feels inclined to perform miracles in this world, Sergei reckons Antarctica would be the only place vast enough to contain them. There is something about the landscape that cleanses his heart and calms its jittering. There is something about this land that seems to wait for a miracle without expecting or needing it, and Sergei thinks he can understand that.
What the land receives, however, is perhaps the opposite of a miracle. Lately it’s been colder here, the kind of cold that shakes you awake in the night. Sergei dons heavier jackets and wears extra socks, as if that could stop his bones frosting over or the wind blowing the snow around and whiting out the landscape. The scientists at the research station are baffled, channeling their concern into a flurry of investigation. What’s going on? Is it global warming? What’s going to happen to the penguins? It’s not just the island, but the whole continent, and then they learn that it’s not just the continent.
Sergei watches the news online about earthquakes, unpredictable weather patterns, inexplicable plagues. In Izhevsk, St. Elmo’s fire was seen hovering above the steeple of a cathedral, and pilgrims and cynics alike came to see it for themselves. In Warsaw, there was an earthquake far from any fault line. Not far from Bukhara, a village turned against each other in a bloody massacre that left its survivors babbling tearfully about black eyes and pillars of flame.
“The world is going insane,” he says to Nikolay.
Nikolay shrugs and says, “The world has always been insane.”
When a miracle does happen here, it takes Sergei completely by surprise. For some reason, he thought there would be some kind of a sign preceding it. A feeling when he woke up, perhaps. A flicker of lights. A whisper.
There was nothing.
That day, he says his prayers. Reads his daily Bible passages. Offers guidance to the staff of the station. Have faith. Be strong. Miracles do happen.
Nothing out of the ordinary.
It’s only later that evening when he’s on his way back to the church, cursing its small distance from the station proper, when a wave of heat and light blasts him out nowhere. The warmth is so unexpected that at first he doesn’t even recognize the sensation. It’s like a blizzard made of lightning and hymns, and Sergei closes his eyes and falls to his knees. He is filled with a familiar feeling that he nevertheless cannot put a name to. Waves of white light rain against his eyelids, and he bows his head and waits it out, prayer pouring from his lips.
It feels like days, but it’s only moments before Sergei feels the power begin to recede. He opens his eyes and sees nothing to suggest that something has just happened. The world is unsettlingly unchanged. He stumbles to his feet, blinking back afterimages. He brushes snow off of his knees, then finds himself walking in the direction of that strange wind, and is reminded of one of Nikolay’s books - a collection of short stories of which one was about an astronaut who went insane and jettisoned himself into space in an untethered spacesuit. The image of the doomed astronaut floating in the darkness haunted Sergei for days. Maybe this is it. Maybe Antarctica has finally cracked him and he is already lost, drifting through the void.
Something is pulling Sergei in. Something is telling him that this is why he came to the ends of the earth in the first place. This is what he has been waiting for but has been too heartsick to let himself expect.
When he makes his way over the hill, he sees two men clutching each other, huddled on the ground. One man appears to be unconscious, his head leaning against the other’s shoulder. To Sergei’s horror, the unconscious man is wearing only jeans and a light jacket, while the other appears to be wearing just a trenchcoat over a suit. Whoever they are, they’re clearly insane. Are they from Bellingshausen? From the other stations?
“Hey!” he shouts, and runs towards them.
Both men look exhausted. Snow collects on their hair, on their shoulders. The unconscious man’s lips are blue, face stark white, and the other guy doesn’t look much better. The man in the trenchcoat has his right hand behind the other’s neck, keeping him steady, while the left hand is firm against the other’s chest.
“Who are you?” Sergei demands. He’s not even sure they can speak Russian. There are other stations here manned by other countries. He repeats the question again in English, then tries to remember how to ask it in Spanish.
The dark-haired man looks up at him, and Sergei doesn’t expect the force of that gaze. It’s as if he’s drinking in everything that Sergei is and judging his merit. He is reminded of that blast of heat, that light. He resists the urge to fall to his knees.
“I’m an angel of the Lord,” he says, as if he’s daring Sergei to suggest otherwise, and somehow all Sergei can think is of course.
The man - the angel - speaks in perfect Russian, but Sergei is thrown off by the accent, or perhaps the tone. The diction is stiff and the cadence formal, but the angel’s voice is rough and edged with desperation.
“We need to get inside,” he says. “My - friend. He’s hurt.”
“Do you - do you need help carrying him?”
“No, I’ve got him.” The angel gets to his feet, lifting his friend with ease. Something about the action tugs at Sergei’s heart. The angel holds the man with the kind of strength whose gentleness only comes from a direct and concentrated channeling of force.
The angel meets Sergei’s eyes again. “Sergei,” he rasps. “We must hurry.”
If there is any lingering doubt as to whether this creature is what he claims, this dismissed it immediately. It wasn’t just that he knew his name. It wasn’t just the impossibility of being in the middle of this freeze in such light clothes. It’s the endlessness in the angel’s eyes, like the gray-flecked blue is just the tip of the iceberg. Like the abyss has been watching back before Sergei even deigned to look.
“Yes,” Sergei breathes. “Yes, of course. Yes. This way.”
For the first time since his arrival here, he's warm.