Benedict an erstwhile sundial maker, is lost to the world. His self-imposed exile, both emotional and physical, in a remote Greek monastery is relieved only by the task of painting an icon under the monks' instruction. Their hope: to save his tortured soul. As the hours of devotion mark the progress of one day in his monastic cell, an escape from Benedict's self-destructive isolation is brokered by the image of Mary Magdalene, guiding him back to his previous life and a new understanding of the events that have led him to Greece.
Annie, a young widow beset by visions and facing death, finds that she too has an unusual guide and confessor as the light and shadows mark the progress of an English day in a very different cell .....
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Benedict is drenched in sweat, his coverlet tied and twisted about his body as though it were a hastily wrapped shroud. He is still, calming his agitated breath. He listens to the silence turning his head to the window. The sky is dark with pre-¬dawn but in the almost-light he can see the template of the day awash with ribbons of cloud; it has been like this every morning since arriving at the monastery. As a distraction from the remnants of the dream, he focuses on the painting that is propped in the corner and wonders how long it will take to finish, considering its failings as a piece of art;; its failing as an icon. He has been given the task of painting it as a spiritual journey to ease his bruised soul. It has been an exercise in patience, nothing more. By way of slowing his breathing and calming his thoughts, he considers the process: the wooden panel rubbed smooth with course cloths; its centre, the holy space, carved out and smoothed again. The preparation of the gesso applied in layers until the surface shone like ivory. Gold applied in tattered leaves and burnished with water until it shone with flawlessness and now each day mixing a little egg, a little water, a little pigment and the portrait gradually forming, brilliant, resplendent. The only colour in the room is on the wooden panel. The paint is fresh, sensually resisting the dry Greek air and attracting the new light of the day. Magenta and gold frame her. Cream-¬faced, her pale painted skin is set against the sharp folds of her headdress, ultramarine; the colour of the gods. Wisps of dark hair escaping the fabric look more luxurious than the extravagant pigments he has used. She is beautiful and nearly finished. Her eyes meet his and he notes her calm aspect, its contrast with the violence of his dream bringing with it a detached interest. Her heavily lidded eyes offer a paradox, deep yet reflective, their colour casting his expression back upon itself. They are sky in sea. Her broad forehead, the formal line of her nose, the smooth ellipse from cheek through jaw, they are as they should be but the score of her face is not one of tranquil piety. She has a disconcerting smile and in this alone she defies the conventions of the icon he had intended to paint. The rough mattress is drenched in sweat and the smell of the wet straw intrudes upon his efforts at peace. He moves to the bowl and dips his hands into the cool cloudy water. There has been too little water at the monastery this week to replace it. He does not care, flicking it onto his face, dragging his hands over his features, listening to the rough sound of his beard and the water dripping back into the bowl. Benedict stares at the whitewashed plaster as though studying his features in a shapeless reflection; there is no mirror in the cell, its white walls bereft of all adornment save the plain wooden cross. The bells for Matins mark the first call to prayer for the monks. He will not join them.
'Are you going to spend another day without purpose?'
'I may,' he turns to look at the icon.
Read the reviews!
"This is a beautifully written story, so engaging, so engrossing, I could not put it down."
--Maggie Jo, Amazon reviewer
"It's a thriller, a love story - a brilliant piece of work by Ms Conti.
--Bob Olivier, Amazon reviewer
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