“Yes, yes, I know all that, grand-papa. Jump on to the end of the story. Tell me about the tea-cups. Pleeeeeease!”
The old man looked fondly at his granddaughter and ran his gnarled fingers through her soft, golden locks. “It was a long time ago and at my age I might not remember all of the details...”
“Yes, you can. I know you do. He was good pastor Ivan. And his dreaded enemy had poured the tea into china cups.”
“Actually they were old and cracked cups with not a saucer in sight. That's because Pastor Ivan was so poor. He had been in and out of prison so many times and the communist state had confiscated almost everything he owned. Then one day his adversary paid him a visit— the heartless villain from the secret police.”
“He was truly awful, wasn't he, grand-papa?”
“Completely wretched, Nadya. He hated Christians and he despised Pastor Ivan most of all. He had tried all manner of schemes to force Ivan to renounce his faith but nothing had succeeded.”
“That's why he decided to murder Pastor Ivan, isn't that right? He poisoned the tea, didn't he?”
“Perhaps you should tell the story?” The old man smiled, delighted as always by the little girl's buoyant enthusiasm.
“No, you do it. Please grand-papa!”
“Then no more interruptions. All right?” The old man waited for the eager nod, then continued with his tale. “As I was saying, the evil colonel picked up his tea-cup and sipped the hot, sweet tea. He had sneakily dropped the poison into the pastor's cup while the other had his eyes closed in prayer.”
“But the pastor could tell, couldn't he?”
“Oops, sorry,” Nadya giggled at having been caught so easily.
“Indeed so. Pastor Ivan tasted the bitter poison with his first sip but instead of protesting, he spoke quietly to his enemy. I'm not sure though that I remember exactly what—”
“I know, let me!”
“Then you had better remind me quickly, my dear. Your mother is standing by the door and I rather suspect that your bath is ready.”
“He said that God could protect him from every evil plot. But even if He didn't, he would go to his grave trusting the Saviour. Just like in that story of Shaddy and Meshy and Abnie. And then brave Pastor Ivan drank the cup of tea in one go.”
“What an excellent memory you have. And what happened next?”
The girl skipped gaily from one foot to the other. “The nasty policeman fell down dead. And the pastor lived happily ever after.”
“Bravo, bravo,” exclaimed the old man, clapping his hands in gentle applause. “Now you run along and jump in your bath. I'll read you a bedtime story once you're done.”
Nadya turned at the door and addressed her grandfather. “It was you, wasn't it, grand-papa? Your name is Ivan, isn't it? You were that pastor.”
“Don't be silly, little one.” The old man waved the girl towards her ablutions and she darted off up the stairs.
“I don't know why you torment yourself so.” Nadya's mother stepped forward and smoothed the old man's straggly white hair. “Changing the story doesn't alter what happened. Some things are just best forgotten.” Planting a gentle kiss on her father's cheek, she left the parlour and headed for the bathroom.
Colonel Ivan Polivanov (retired), formerly of the KGB, folded his hands and leaned back in his chair. His conversion had come late in life, the Russian Orthodox priest assuring him that his sins were truly forgiven. Yet scarcely a day went by without his reliving that dreadful afternoon when he had sat and gloated while an innocent man died. The pastor's death had been slow and painful and vindictive. In a few weeks' time, he too would step into eternity and face the Judge of all the earth. What value then his ribbons and commendations and tall tales?
Like his erstwhile opponent and namesake, Ivan did not fear death. But would the Church's baptism prove as efficacious as the priests maintained? Would his entry into the next world be one of sweet pardon or of bitter condemnation? The ex-policeman closed his eyes and prayed that his many crimes might yet be forgiven. Whether he could ever forgive himself was another matter entirely.
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