by Rebecca Lipperini

birch bark— soft

I’m seven— I go to school

1220— maybe 1260

in the city, the streets are paved with wood

the city is already more than three hundred years old

a time scale represented in the rings of trees

along the wooden streets, a five domed stone cathedral— white as birch bark

inside, frescos and icons line the walls in patterned rows

Saints Constantine and Helena in red ochre, umber, and green earth

their hands are clasped around an azurite wooden cross

Helena had dug the wood up from the ground in Palestine

in 326— as distant from me as you are

the cathedral is St. Sophia, meaning holy wisdom

and inside, a library— and below, graves— and outside, me

writing my psalms on birch bark

Greetings from Onfim to Danilo

I draw myself and my teacher

I draw us together with our friends

I draw myself – as a knight! on top of a horse

I draw myself as a wild beast – I caption it – I am a wild beast!

I breathe fire

author's note: I came across the writings and illustrations of Onfim, a young boy from 13th-century Novgorad, through the usual means (the internet). I was so moved by the idea of this seven-year-old boy writing his schoolwork and doodling in the margins and of all of it preserved on wood. You can read more about Onfim, and see some of his illustrations, here.


Featured in our September 2021 issue, "Nostalgia"