Exactly on the Feast of St. Andrew the First-Called, masterbuilder John, nicknamed "The Ladder," brought to Lord Nikolich of Rudna the drawings for the new Church of the Presentation of the Holy Mother of God in the Temple. This was to be built on the Nikolich estate by the River Tisa and was to be officially registered as the property of Miss Attilia. The builder himself chose the most suitable site for the church at the place where, as he explained, only one wind blew. When he spread out his plans in the dining-room, they covered the whole table. The temple was to have seven windows, and seats near the altar for the Nikolich family with their coat-of-arms on the backs.
Nikolich studied the drawings and suddenly said:
- John, these are plans for three churches, all as identical as peas in a pod, but I commissioned only one church.
- Yes, the plans are for three churches, but you, Lord Nikolich, will only pay for one. This first church you see, drawn in green, will be in your garden within your sight but it won't be built: it will grow by itself.
- Don't you sell pregnant storks to me, John! Whoever heard of a church growing by itself?
- It's true. And we'll agree here and now that it's possible, Lord Nikolich. Tomorrow I shall send over three gardeners and they will plant a box hedge in your garden precisely according to these plans. The hedge will grow at approximately the same rate as I shall build the second church, in stone, marked in yellow on my drawings, on your estate near the river Tisa. Every week, my gardeners will shape and trim the hedge according to the plans, and you will be able to follow from your window the progress my builders and stonemasons are making on the second church by the Tisa. You will see everything through your window - when the portals are raised, when the altar is set in place, and when the cupola is erected. Let us only make a start, with God's help, and everything will happen exactly as planned and on time....
- That's all well and good. But tell me, John, what of the third church which is drawn in purple ink on the plans?
- Ah, that's a secret which you will only uncover when the building work is finished. For there can be no successful construction without a secret and no real church without a miracle.
So they parted, and John began to build the church of the Presentation of the Holy Mother of God in the Temple, while through the window Nikolich showed Attilia the box hedge growing into a three-naved church which one could enter like a flower garden through its broad opening. Every day Attilia walked through this natural temple, sometimes stopping at the place in front of the floral altar where she would be married, and one Monday evening she spotted the Evening Star in the first open window of the new church. The box hedge church steadily climbed upwards towards the heavens.
Naturally, Attilia and her father would occasionally go to the Tisa and the site on the estate where the second church was rising in marble and stone. And they were just as interested to visit the other building, Attilia's palace, which Damascene was erecting. Yet Damascene was rarely to be seen at the building site - as if he were hiding from something. Despite this, the Nikolich family was happy because the palace was progressing even faster than the churches.
But then events took an unexpected turn.
Yagoda came to his master one morning and said:
- The box hedge has stopped growing!
- I don't give a hoot! - said Nikolich abruptly - I neither ordered nor paid for a church made of box hedge.
Nonetheless, he quickly decided to go and check matters out for himself on the spot. So he set off for the Tisa to see when he would be able to take possession of the finished church and have it consecrated. When he arrived at the site, however, he found the church had one door and one window fewer than before. Furthermore, there was no sign of the builders or the stonemasons.
- This shirt is really starting to come apart at the seams! - he thought and took action in his accustomed and time-honored fashion. He did not summon John the Ladder, builder of the church, to explain matters. Instead, he commanded Yagoda to bring to him at all costs the other John, his rival, Damascene. He could not conceive of two builders, professional competitors, who were not, outside their craft, sworn enemies, too. John the Damascene appeared on the second day with a bound head. He was hurt. He was still bleeding a little under the bandage.
What has happened to the church? - asked Nikolich excitedly.
- You can see for yourself. They've stopped building.
- What do you mean stopped building? Why?
- Something is preventing John from finishing the church - said Damascene. The box hedge has stopped growing.
- The box hedge, the box hedge, that's all I hear! I don't give a damn about the box hedge - said Nikolich - I paid John to build in stone and that's what he should be doing - building in stone. Can't they add on the missing bits?
- My lord, it's no problem for John to continue building in stone, but if the box hedge doesn't grow, that means the third church, the one drawn in purple ink on the plans, isn't growing either. And the stone church can only be built here at the same rate as work on the third church....
- Well, what do we do now?
- You must have sinned, my Lord. You must have owed something to somebody, or short-changed someone. When you remember what you did wrong and who you were unjust to, show repentance and put matters right. Return the debt, then John can complete your church.
- For God's sake, Damascene, where is John building the third church?
- In Heaven. John always builds the third church in Heaven.
(If you have not read The Palace, proceed to that chapter. If you have, go on to the Second Fork.)