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It was hot in the graveyard that day. The sunlight escaped through the wispy clouds and beat itself upon the newly upturned soil, upon the stone markers, and upon the mourners with a vengeance previously unheard of on a November day in Aksay, Russia.
Lizaveta Ivanov was one such mourner. She wore an impressive full-length black gown reaching high on her neck, and a black veil that shrouded her papery, powdered skin.
The casket had not been lowered into the earth yet; it lay menacing and dim behind the minister's podium. No flowers adorned its hulking presence, and no eyes seemed to be able to rest on it for more than a moment. Not wanting to be noticed as different, Lizaveta also tore her eyes away.
“Such a shame. Someone so young,” the woman whispered heavily into the ear of the woman standing next to her, Klara Elios.
“Shh,” was her answering reprimand. “The minister's beginning.”
“Today we gather to mourn the loss of Akalina Magnovska. She was a smart, young, promising addition to Aksay, and we all grieve as ….”
The minister's words grew hazy in Lizaveta's ears, and she focused her attention on the stony faces of the others clothed in ebony. None seemed to be particularly sad or sympathetic. Instead, brimstone judgment was spelled clearly in their eyes.
Among the crowd, the faces of the Magnovska family stood out most clearly. Their gray and navy scarves hid the thin, pale lines of their mouths, but the martyrdom in their eyes burned Lizaveta's own. An emotion that was hard to place had seated itself on Akalina's mother's face, and despite the scorching sun, Lizaveta shivered at the fury she sensed beneath the surface.
Inside her casket, Akalina Magnovska sluggishly lifted her eyelids. Her pupils dilated furiously in a vain attempt to capture any remnant of light. All was blackness; Akalina blinked and blinked but could see nothing.
Her body felt leaden, and it was a great effort to twitch the little finger on her right hand.
Where am I? she asked herself silently. What's wrong with me? Why can't I move?
Panic began to slide its fingers across her chest, as Akalina tried to determine what could be causing her paralysis. She felt vaguely as she had when she was younger and her brother had slammed a pestle down on her hand as they were pounding chicken flesh for the evening meal. The doctor had used a medicine that made her feel as dull as an old knife while he molded her hand back to a semblance of its former shape.
Did I have an accident? Did he use the medicine again? Akalina wondered dazedly, trying to remember the last thing that had happened before she woke up.
All of her thoughts and memories seemed twisted in a giant knot that slumped at the base of her neck. Tears welled in her eyes as she tried to disassemble the mass of confusion. Finally, a face tore itself from the mass – Adam. She remembered meeting with him in the back of her father's farming land and building a little fire on the hard ground. She remembered being overcome with joy that they were together. She remembered leaping up to grab his hand and dance around the warmth, and she remembered how her cheeks had burned when she pulled him in and touched his lips. Her mind's eye recalled one more thing before the panic set in: Gospazah Ivanov's scandalized face as she came upon the sacrilegious scene.
The word “witch” flung from the old woman's pious lips.
Akalina dragged herself out of the remnants of the drugged stupor; she beat her small hands against the unsanded boards of her casket. Her palms became a raw pulp, and blood dripped onto her face mingling with the tears that leaked uncontrollably from her eyes. She choked on her own bile and screamed until the deafening, ringing sound of her shrieks filled the casket and smothered her, reaching its spidery black hands to creep along the edges of her consciousness.
The minister was only halfway through his eulogy when the casket began to shake and a howling came from inside. The old man coughed briefly and then raised his voice in an effort to overpower the sound.
An embarrassed buzz swept through the crowd, and they collectively ignored the screaming as though it were a rude child disrupting a family meal. Akalina's uncles restrained her mother as she tried to reach her daughter.
“She's gone,” they whispered. “She's gone.”
She sank to the ground, screaming, drowning in her helplessness.
“They didn't give her enough medicine to keep her asleep long enough,” Lizaveta mused to Klara. Klara nodded vaguely; her mind already back home, wondering if she had left the coals in the oven smoldering or if she had remembered to put them out.
The minister gave up on straining his thin voice and exasperatedly motioned for the young men to lower Akalina's casket into the grave. One of them shook with sorrow; Lizaveta recognized Adam as she pushed her way through the crowd to view Akalina's grave marker. It was unadorned except for her name and two dates.
Akalina Jarene Magnovska
Underneath, someone had crudely scratched the word cataha into the gray stone. Satan.
“Pozor, pozor,” Lizaveta hushed as she passed the trembling, howling casket. “Shame, shame. So young.”
She pulled the black veil a little lower so no one noticed the self-satisfied smirk on her witch-crying lips as she shoved through the throng to return home.