Deus ex Ucraina

The Fire

Оповідь українською

Story by Oleksii Dubrov

Illustrated by Yevheniia Polosina

I. Ashes

They probably won’t forgive him this time around. He’ll surely be expelled from school and be forced to continue to waste his life in this godforsaken place.

There’s just no way he’s going to get away scot-free.

Punishment has eluded Ignat Yemelyanov in the past. He escaped blame for fighting with his classmates in grade 11-A, for disrespecting his elders, even for his contempt for God. In the end, however, he remains useful to them. His fellow villagers have always ignored the boy’s true “self,” though his actions made it abundantly clear who he really is.

The priest in the neighboring village pretended not to notice when Ignat, almost two-meters-tall with flaming red hair, stole the donations from the church box. Although, he probably feigned ignorance, and the reason Ignat was kicked out of the church’s patriotic youth group was because he did know.

Today, however, Ignat had definitely crossed the line.

People came running shortly after the first tongues of fire appeared in the carved antique shuttered windows of the Community Club in the village of Siuzvyaki. The impenetrable darkness of the night which had enveloped the small village in the Perm krai or region of the Russian Federation a little over an hour earlier was unexpectedly splintered by a burst of flames. Naida, Ignat’s dog, whose coat was as red as Ignat’s hair, stood guard, making sure no strangers approached.

The first to arrive was Marfa Ivanovna, the eighty-year-old grandmother who lived in the sagging wooden house across from the club. She had donned her hallmark red-and-white checkered headscarf neatly tied below her chin to watch the fire. Ignat helped her a few times a week, looking after her cow Carmelita, and the old lady treated him with freshly baked buns stuffed with meat in return. The cow was nearly twenty years old and produced little milk, but it would have been a shame to slaughter her.

Next, the old codger Makar rounded the bend and waded into the pool of light radiating from the flames. Clad in the shabby jacket he wore regardless if it was autumn, winter, or summer, he clumsily placed one foot in front of the other, desperately trying not to trip, careful not to break the half-empty bottle of moonshine in his left hand. Old Makar had drunk away his livestock ages ago, except for five skinny spotted chickens Ignat regularly tended. In exchange for feeding the birds, the boy was allowed to keep half the eggs he found. Truth be told, the old man never counted the number of eggs.

“How horrible,” Marfa Ivanovna said, grasping her head with both hands, rhythmically shaking it from side to side. The conflagration was no laughing matter, completely engulfing the one-story building in just a few minutes. Its wooden planks, darkened and rotted with age, went up in flames one after another right before their eyes. The “CLUB” sign, each of the four letters printed on a single sheet of A4 paper, vanished in an instant.

Old Makar took a swig of moonshine from his bottle, swaying on his feet while watching the village club burn down, staring at the scene with as much intensity as his condition would allow. A minute later, Fyodor Vasilievich, the village mayor, showed up with his wife Vasilisa, their dog Yasha skulking at their feet. They were the wealthiest household in Siuzvyaki with three cows, a horse, goats, and chickens. They were the only folks in the village who did not need Ignat’s help, managing to do everything on their own, along with their two sons and their wives.

“Fyodorrrrr!” roared Old Makar, stepping forward and nearly losing his balance. “Do something!”

“What can I do?” Fyodor Vasilievich said as a justification for his inaction.

“Call the firemen,” the old alcoholic suggested, “to come and put the fire out in the sarayka, that barn!”

“Old fool,” Marfa Ivanovna whispered, nudging Makar’s shoulder. The man’s wobbly legs buckled, and he fell forward, stretching his hands out in front of him to keep from falling face down onto the wet ground. “This isn’t a sarayka!” she said.

“No one will come,” Vasilisa defended her husband, nodding her head toward the ladder standing in the middle of the street. Whenever the mobile phone network had issues, the villagers could usually catch a signal by climbing onto the highest rung. “There’s been no signal even up there for the last week.”

“Really?” Marfa Ivanovna looked surprised. “I was wondering why my grandson hasn’t called from Saransk for such a long time. He studies at the university there.”

Ignat could barely contain his smile. Naida snuggled closer to his feet seeking safety – Yasha, Fyodor and Vasilisa’s dog, was twice as big as Ignat’s and Naida was afraid of her. Ignat waited to see if the people would solve the mystery of who had set the fire. It was him, standing right here, in the shadows. Before claiming his prize, first he had to wait for his neighbor from the western end of the village to arrive. Petrovich would definitely show.

More villagers were gathering. There was the old lady Praskovya, who had a goat named Vyerka; and old man Ivan, who had also become a drunk a long time ago, and, oddly enough, hadn’t gone fishing on the Obva River today. There were others as well. Within ten minutes of the fire starting, three dozen people had come running to watch – all the villagers who stayed home, not having gone to mass at the church in the neighboring village, Kozmodyemyansk.

Old man Ivan the drunk, brought a bucket to try and save the village club by dousing it with a pail of water, but it was pointless. The building was fully engulfed in flames, and nothing could extinguish the fire.

The village club was the only public facility still functioning in Siuzvyaki. It was rarely used, except when people gathered there on New Year’s Eve, Victory Day, and Easter, to drink and dance together. The village school had been “temporarily closed” three years ago, so all the children had to walk eight-and-a-half kilometers through the fields to Kozmodyemyansk. It made no sense to have a bus drive the children from their village to the school, since it would take several hours to traverse the fifty kilometers of neglected, broken-down road on Route 57K–1504.

Nothing ever happened in Siuzvyaki. Today, however, Ignat Yemelyanov had made his little homeland a bit brighter. Like Prometheus, he had brought fire down into the souls of his apathetic fellow villagers. Perhaps they will be angry with him now, but he had united them in a common cause, and they will be grateful to him in the end. They will thank him in the new club they will rebuild together. People crowded around the building, their starkly lit faces a mix of confusion and tears. Ignat imagined them to be like Indians around a campfire. Exhausted, the old Makar plopped down onto the damp October ground and leaned against the crooked fence in front of Marfa Ivanovna’s house. “You’re going to knock it over!” the old woman yelled at him.

The crackling of dry wood echoed all the way to the surrounding fir forests, where Ignat’s father Vladimir Yemelyanov had worked until half a year ago, when the “special military operation” began, and he was mobilized to serve in the Rosgvardia, the Russian National Guard. He was considered a hero by everyone, an example for future generations. “He serves Russia,” Ignat would tell everyone with great pride.

The building had lost its form and was no longer recognizable. The boy continued staring intently at the faces in the crowd. Ignat’s palms grew sweaty, and he clenched them tightly into fists. Petrovich had not yet appeared, nor had the boy’s mother. She was probably still at church or murmuring her prayers on her way home. Meanwhile, the crowd of villagers watched the spectacle in silence, occasionally exchanging short phrases. Ignat was growing increasingly nervous. The thought they might not actually care who started the fire crossed his mind. No one had even bothered to ask the question.

“No,” he thought, “they’re still in shock.”

Marfa Ivanovna was the first to go home, fixing her headscarf, which had gotten rumpled in the excitement. Old man Ivan waved his hand dismissively at the fire and ambled after her into the darkness. The village club had burned to the ground, the last few embers lazily dying out here and there. The century-old building was reduced to a pile of ashes in under a quarter of an hour.

“Now what?” the old lady Praskovya turned and asked mayor Fyodor Vasilievich.

“I’ll write a letter to the governor, maybe he can help…” the village mayor said with a shrug of his shoulders. “Unfortunately, he’s a bastard. But, what else can I do? Complain to Putin, I suppose…”

The people gradually dispersed, silently accepting their fate. Ignat’s heart was pounding – he had not anticipated this reaction. No one had realized he was first at the scene. No one had asked him how the building caught on fire on such a cold and damp evening. Ignat stepped forward, intending to prevent the people from leaving and explain everything. To tell them what he had done.

As soon as the boy opened his mouth, he was interrupted by Naida, who finally decided to bark at the retreating and much-despised Yasha. “No, let your actions speak for themselves, without words,” Ignat remembered the commandment his friend Petrovich would constantly repeat to him. Obviously, he hadn’t done a good job. He had planned it poorly. Next time, he’ll do something really spectacular, taking it one step further. And he’ll make sure he’s the one at the center of attention.

“Fascists shall not pass!” Ignat’s train of thought was broken by the hollering of Old Makar, who jerked awake for a moment from his drunken stupor. The boy hunched over and shuffled home down the dark street. Naida ran after him.

They had forgiven him once again.

ІІ. The spark

Ignat always woke up five minutes before his alarm went off.

He used this time for himself. He stretched, enjoying the warmth of the blanket protecting him from the October frost creeping in unhindered through the dry wood of the Yemelyanov family’s izba or log house. He listened to the boards creaking pitifully from the sting of turbulent gusts of wind. It was completely dark – there were still three hours before the sun rose over the Perm krai.

The alarm clock chirped its delicate bird song. Although it was set on the lowest volume, it sounded like a screech in the grave silence. Ignat shut the alarm off a second after it rang. It was exactly five in the morning, and he did not want to wake his mother. The screen of his cheap Chinese Oukitel smartphone from the online outlet AliExpress was a spiderweb of cracks, but it kept its charge well. Ignat held the phone close to the window; however, no miracle occurred – there was still no mobile service. Using the dim light of the phone’s screen, he straightened the book Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky, which lay slightly askew atop the bedside table.

Stretching one final time, the boy sat up in bed and swung his feet wrapped in thick woolen socks onto the wooden floor. He felt the icy cold despite the thickness of the rough wool. Nevertheless, there was a positive side to the cold – hastening the last remnants of sleepiness to evaporate instantly. Standing, Ignat quickly slipped into his thermal-lined track suit which hung folded neatly on a chair. His hands accidentally bumped against the ceiling and wardrobe a few times as he he got dressed. The tiny size of his room made it seem packed full of furniture.

Grabbing a piece of stale bread from the kitchen table, Ignat went outside, crossing his arms firmly across his chest, as if this would protect him from the cold. “I’ll have to get the jacket from the attic,” he thought, walking over to the doghouse where Naida’s sleepy snout emerged to greet him. He stroked the dog and shared his breakfast with her, offering the bread which she sniffed and swallowed in one gulp. Climbing out of the doghouse, the animal yawned widely and stretched, straightening her front legs and arching her back. Brushing the breadcrumbs off his hands, the boy took a lighter and cigarettes from his pants’ pocket and lit up.

Ignat bent to pet Naida once more, scratching her behind the ears, and stood again, wiping the palm she had licked in gratitude on his pants. He deeply inhaled the freezing air, the cold electrifying his body and making his hair stand on end. Nighttime still reigned everywhere around him, broken only occasionally by the shrill cawing of ravens. Ignat looked towards the neighbor’s house directly behind his across a low wooden fence. No sign of life. “I wonder where Petrovich is? Did something happen to him?” he mused.

It was long past time to grease the door to his barn, the sarayka, since it creaked loud enough to wake the entire street. Ignat switched on the so-called Ilyich lamp, which consisted of a naked lightbulb swinging loose on a single wire directly above the entrance, sufficient to provide light for the small space. The sarayka was a rectangular wooden barn divided into several sections by low partitions. This was where the cow, Manka, two pigs Vaska and Vovka, and a dozen brown and black chickens lived, all of whom the boy knew by name. Ignat knelt down by the small “square,” as he called it, immediately under Ilyich’s lamp, took hold of a metal ring and pulled it up, revealing a pit underneath the floor deep enough to hold a man. The pit was piled high with dozens of sacks of recently harvested potatoes, carrots, beets, and stockpiled grains.

Ignat took some carrots and potatoes from one of the sacks. He shredded the carrots on a rusty grater which was laying on a small table near the entrance and poured them into an enamel bowl.

“Coo-coo-coo, coo-coo-coo,” Ignat called the chickens to eat, scattering the grated carrots and a few handfuls of grain from the storage pit. “Enjoy your breakfast girls!”

“Vovka, Vaska, you’ve been rubbing up against the fence again!” Ignat complained, scattering some potatoes on the ground for the pigs. He straightened the bent pole, then tamped the earth around it so it would hold better.

Ignat always fed the cow Manka last during this “morning routine.” While the animal chewed the fragrant hay, the boy milked her with familiar rhythmic up and down movements. Powerful jets of warm white liquid streamed against the walls of the galvanized gray bucket.

“Oh, you’re wonderful today, Manka,” he praised the cow. “Mom’s wrong to want to take you to slaughter. There’s almost half a bucket of milk!” The boy picked out the hay which had fallen into and was floating on the surface of her drinking water. “That’s more like it!” Manka the cow gave a long “Moo-oo-oo!” in response. Ignat smiled and patted her on the neck.

Dawn was approaching outside, so he guessed it was about seven o’clock. A slight white haze floated above the fields and melted away among the fir trees. Naida was now fully awake, eagerly sniffing the stench of cow dung wafting in the morning wind. Animal excrement was highly valued by the residents of Siuzvyaki. Since ancient times, it had been used in healing rituals to treat burns. Most often, it was mixed with straw, pressed into bricks, and used for heating, because firewood was too expensive to buy, and the women who made up the majority of the small population of local residents could not harvest wood on their own. When they tried, the foresters chased them away. Ignat avoided using these dung bricks, because their stench was unbearable. He didn’t care if the burnt cow excrement smelled like church incense to his mother and chased away the mosquitoes.

After petting his dog some more, Ignat glanced at his neighbor’s window again. There was a satellite dish above it, brandishing the “Tricolor TV” emblem in the colors of the Russian flag. It was the only modern item on the old building. “It’s time for the morning news and Petrovich isn’t around,” the boy thought. “I’ll go and check on him.”

“Ignat!” his mother called to him in a menacing tone, interrupting his thoughts. He didn’t have to turn around to know she was shouting at him from the kitchen, where she usually sipped her morning chamomile tea. Mother worked in the church all day until late evening, so she awoke later than him. “Ignat!”

Mother was already dressed in her calf-length skirt and a warm, mud-colored knitted sweater. She had tied a yellowed scarf on her head, which had been white at some point twenty years ago. Nadezhda Yemelyanova was once an alluring, young, slender blonde with a beautiful smile. As a child, Ignat noticed how other men in Siuzvyaki looked at her in “that special way” when she walked him to school. After Nadezhda embraced religion and began serving in the church of Saints Nicholas and Alexandra in the neighboring village, she quickly grew plump, haggard, and lost interest in raising her son. Although it also may have been because his father had been drowning his sorrows in a bottle of liquor and periodically raised his hand to her. Regardless of the cause, there was no trace of the previously sweet, smiling young woman left. Standing before Ignat now was a tired, grumbling old woman in a headscarf, despite the fact Nadezhda’s passport said she was only forty-six years old.

“Why would you shame your mother so?! Lord, have mercy!” cried Nadezhda Yemelyanova, crossing herself, while her son wiped the dirt off his boots against the metal grate at the doorway to the entrance of the izba. “Do you even understand how mortified I was yesterday in front of batyushka, Father Yegor?”

Ignat looked inquisitively at his mother. She no longer scared him as much as she annoyed him. “Here we go again,” thought the boy while he silently poured some vegetable oil into a pan and turned on the gas.

“Why didn’t you tell me you were kicked out of Ruski Shtyk, the Russian Bayonet patriotic youth camp?”

“My God, did she just find out now? A whole month has passed,” Ignat thought, smiling while remaining silent. He sliced a few pieces of bread and threw them in the pan. The hot oil sizzled merrily.

“Are you going to talk to me or not?” Nadezhda Yemelyanova did not know how to deal with her son apart from raising her voice. She was so tired of it all, she had absolutely no energy left to be creative in her parenting.

The woman sliced a piece of bread for herself, put it in a single use plastic bag she had rinsed and reused several times, adding a couple of washed tomatoes to her modest lunch. She slumped down into her chair to finish drinking her morning tea. Slurping loudly, she used her free hand to grasp her forehead.

“Now my head aches because of you. Lord, forgive me!” she crossed herself again.

“It’s all the incense you’ve been sniffing,” Ignat countered, breaking two eggs, one after the other, into the frying pan.

“Watch your tongue, you Godless heathen!” Nadezhda Yemelyanova raised her right hand in the air, winding up to slap her son. Her threat ended there, since he was standing too far away, so she couldn’t actually hit him. “Raised a sinner in my own home. Just you wait! When your father comes home, I’ll tell him…” his mother stammered. “Although he’s just as bad as this one, off somewhere, leaving me here,” she added, almost in a whisper.

But Ignat had heard her.

“You leave my father alone!” he shouted, emphasizing his words by stabbing the air in front of his mother’s face with the fork he was using to fry bread. Nadezhda Yemelyanova reflexively covered her face with her hands. A few drops of hot oil left greasy stains on the sleeve of her sweater.

There was no doubt in her mind. She recognized Ignat’s father Vladimir in her son. And it scared her.

“Okay, okay. I get it. You are strong,” the woman managed to utter. “Batyushka Yegor wants to see you.”

“What does he want?” asked Ignat. He turned off the gas, sat down at the table, and started eating his breakfast straight from the frying pan. His mother reached to take some of the food, but the son moved the pan out of her reach.

“How should I know?” Annoyed, she jerked to her feet. “About the camp, probably. He’s waiting for you at three o’clock, come by after school.” She limped on her left leg (another consequence of the beatings) toward the door.

“No school. We’re on break,” Ignat grumbled in his mother’s wake.

“And dig up the flower bed!” the woman commanded, slamming the door behind her.

After gobbling up the fried bread and eggs, the boy put the pan back on the stove. He looked around and realized he had been arguing with his mother in the dark. The first rays of the morning sun were just beginning to creep into the house. Ignat spotted the bread and tomatoes on the table. His mother had forgotten her lunch. He took the bag and moved towards the door to call out to the old woman. When he grabbed the doorknob to push it open however, he changed his mind and tossed the food into the trash can.

Ignat took a pack of cigarettes and a lighter from his pocket and tried to light one. After several attempts resulting only in sparks, the lighter didn’t produce a flame. He shook the lighter near his ear to check for butane – there was no sound. The lighter was empty.

ІІІ. The smoke

“A lighter and two packs of Bond Blue,” Ignat said to the cashier in the greasy blue coat, handing her three bills adorned with the image of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater.

“And where am I supposed to get change for you?” the portly female clerk everyone called Auntie Tamara demanded in an offended tone. She ran the only store in the village of Kozmodemyansk.

Auntie Tamara didn’t give a crap about Ignat’s bad habits or that he was technically underage. She had two taboos in life – never judge anyone for smoking and alcoholism and never violate the instructions issued by those higher up in the hierarchy. These rules were actually good for business and avoided unnecessary conflicts. Clients, from her point of view, were somewhere at minus one, if not lower down the levels of the hierarchy.

Raking the last coins from her battered cash register, the woman asked, “Have you heard anything about your father?”

“He’s fine,” Ignat snorted back, grabbing the cigarettes with one motion and burying them in his tracksuit pocket.

The boy never hid his disdain for Auntie Tamara, especially after she didn’t reciprocate his advances when he was in the ninth grade. And she only cared about his father as a customer who always ordered “three shots of 100 grams of vodka and a chocolate.”

Avoiding the need for any further questions and small talk, Ignat left the store. There were two plastic tables and matching chairs outside the store’s entrance. The plastic was chipped in some places and the furniture’s legs had lost their once smooth lines. Two men were sitting at each of the tables, sipping some kind of alcohol from cracked plastic cups. Ignat glanced in their direction, searching for any signs Petrovich had fallen in with this group. However, his elderly neighbor was not there. He wasn’t here nor was he at home. Ignat had looked for the old man at his house when he had gone to feed Petrovich’s cats, Woland and Margo, but found nothing.

The village of Kozmodyemyansk was twice the size of Siuzvyaki, with only about six hundred people living there. It was located along Regional Route 57K–1504, and had a functioning school, store, library, and church. The residents of surrounding villages walked several kilometers to this village for education, work, and groceries. Kozmodyemyansk was a kind of “local hub.” It was rumored Ignat’s father had a mistress in the village, but the boy couldn’t be sure. The one thing he was certain of is that he did not enjoy the same warm reception in Kozmodyemyansk as he did back in his native Siuzvyaki.

The primary reason to come to the village was Kozmodyemyansk had more-or-less stable mobile phone coverage and 3G Internet. Ignat used it every time he was there. He checked dozens of unread messages on the countless Telegram channels he was subscribed to. Inserting the one earbud which still worked, he played the latest video from the “ZaPrezidienta” channel and listened to Vladimir Putin’s voice telling him, “We must, we have the obligation to protect our statehood and our territorial integrity. Our armed forces are successfully performing their assigned tasks. Yesterday, on October 22, we regained partial control of the Russian city of Melitopol…”

The President of Russia’s voice always had a soothing effect on Ignat. Vladimir Putin managed to transform his unusually high-pitched male voice into having a calming influence, sounding fatherly to Ignat. Although, he had noticed some odd changes today. The usually measured tempo was interrupted by sharp and unnatural pauses and the voice occasionally hit notes which sounded way too high. Worried, Ignat went to the chat he shared with his father and wrote, as he had many times before: “Hello. Are you OK?” He knew it was unlikely he would receive a reply, since the army command had taken away Vladimir Yemelyanov’s phone back in February.

The Church of Saints Nicholas and Alexandra was located on the outskirts of town, overlooking the village from atop a sizable hill. The tiresomely long trek to reach it seemed quicker than usual to Ignat with his headphones on. Stairs had never been built on the side of the hill and people were forced to climb foot trodden paths, which were washed away when it rained, turning the paths into messy, muddy quagmires. This did not prevent parishioners from ascending the hill the locals called their Calvary every Sunday and on holidays. Gasping, sweaty, and dirty, they eventually arrived in the realm of the spiritual.

“I wonder if this is how God shows his dominance?” Ignat thought, spitting out his cigarette butt at the base of the metal fence guarding the property around the place of worship.

The church, unlike most buildings in the village, was made of brick, plastered, and painted pale green. Its domes were made of wood. The diocese only had enough money to pay for the cross crowning of the central nave to be gilded in gold. The temple’s priest, batyushka Yegor, built an izba for himself next to the church on the same hill, not far from his place of work. The envious villagers said he built his house there so he wouldn’t have to climb Golgotha every day.

At first glance, batyushka Yegor’s izba was quite modest and typical for the Perm krai. It had darkened and unpainted boards, wood-carved shutters, and a sloping roof covered with shingles. The dwelling, however, had several features which distinguished it from the other izbas. Its walls were straight, the windows intact, and batyushka Yegor’s sextons had laid a walkway of boards between his house and the church so the priest would not get his feet dirty, even when it rained. Thick gray smoke poured from the house’s chimney.

Ignat knocked on the door, but no one answered. He looked around and not a soul was to be seen. Not having the slightest desire to go to the church and see his mother, he decided to interrupt the batyushka’s meal. Ignat pulled the door handle; it was unlocked and the door hinges, the boy noted, were well-oiled. He silently made his way inside the izba which consisted of two small rooms to the right and left of the entrance.

Not removing his muddy shoes, Ignat entered the kitchen. Firewood crackled in an old-fashioned Russian stove inside of which was a cast iron pot with a lid. There was an empty wooden bowl, a spoon, and a decanter with some fruit juice atop the table covered with a white tablecloth. The walls were not visible through the profusion of icons depicting the Blessed Mother, Jesus, and numerous saints. An icon of tsar Nicholas II’s family hung in the place of honor in an expensive gilded frame.

“And what is the meaning of this?” Ignat jumped, startled by the abrupt words coming from behind him. He turned around and saw batyushka Yegor standing in the kitchen doorway. In his fifties, the priest wore rectangular glasses and sported a thick beard which had turned gray in a few places. They stood at nearly the same height.

“The meaning of what?” inquired Ignat, trying to guess the reason behind the batyushka’s grievance.

“Your muddy shoes,” the priest flung back at him.

Although batyushka Yegor was a servant of God, he was known for his biting and direct, almost military, tone. The village rumormongers claimed he was a former soldier. He pulled the pot from the oven with a poker, opened the lid, and grabbed a towel to help him carry the hot pot to the table. The kitchen was immediately suffused with the pleasant aroma of onion soup, generously seasoned with bay leaves.

“Will you join me?” batyushka Yegor asked, ladling himself a bowl of soup.

Ignat did not refuse. A moment later, an identical lacquered wooden bowl with soup appeared in front of him, a delicate white steam rising from the bowl and slowly dissipated in the room.

“If you want to talk about the camp…” Ignat began, blowing at the soup in his spoon to cool it.

“Why do you think they kicked you out?” the batyushka wouldn’t let him finish.

“The instructor was biased against me,” the boy suggested. During the two weeks he had attended the military-patriotic camp Ruski Shtyk, which had been organized at the church by batyushka Yegor, the instructor constantly called him a “weakling” and a “ballerina,” although the boy considered himself to be in pretty good physical shape.

“He had good reason,” the priest interrupted and pulled some bread from under the table, handing a piece to the boy.

“He treated me like a slave,” explained Ignat, biting into a piece of fresh bread. “But I am a free man.”

“Is that why you put your hand into the church’s donation box?” batyushka Yegor asked, staring intently into Ignat’s eyes.

The boy did not answer and stopped chewing for a moment. “So, he caught me after all,” thought Ignat, and wondered when exactly he had been seen.

“Dad’s salary was held back…” muttered the boy and stopped, not knowing what else to say.

“Do you want to be useful to the Fatherland, like he is?” the batyushka asked, then lifted his bowl to his lips and drank the last of the soup. A few drops of soup sprinkled his beard.

“He’s a brave man. I’m not like him,” Ignat sighed, unable to take his eyes off the traces of the soup on Yegor’s beard. He thought he saw a scar across the priest’s chin beneath the beard. “Nice way to hide it,” Ignat thought to himself.

“I gather people like you,” the batyushka said and poured himself some fruit juice. He stood without offering the boy a glass. “I will soon be transferred to a larger parish.”

“Pfff,” Ignat snorted, pushing aside the bowl with the remnants of soup at the bottom, and crossed his arms across his chest. “I’m not going to work at the church. Don’t count on it. And I’ll return the money, but it’ll have to be later.”

Batyushka Yegor smiled and silently headed for the kitchen door, beckoning Ignat to follow him. The priest led him to the bedroom. The space was just as small as Ignat’s bedroom, yet somehow accommodated a full-sized bed, a desk, and a wardrobe. The windows were covered with curtains made of thin white lace which let in a lot of light despite the grey autumn weather. The furniture and bed were draped in the same white lace. There was not a single icon in this room. What surprised Ignat most was the walls were plastered with patriotic Russian army posters. There were two framed portraits sitting on the desk: one of Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, the other of President Putin.

While Ignat inspected the faces on the posters, looking for any similarities with his hero-father, Batyushka Yegor opened a drawer, retrieved two photographs, and handed them to Ignat. They were taken in semi-darkness, but the boy recognized at once what the photos showed. There he saw himself, in the dim light of the only lamppost in Siuzvyaki, holding a canister of gasoline. The second photo showed Ignat pouring its contents on the Village Club door. “He’ll definitely rat me out to the cops!” the boy thought and clenched his right hand into a fist. Yes, he could punch batyushka Yegor right now and grab the photos, still he had no guarantee digital copies hadn’t been sent somewhere. Ignat looked around the room and did not see a mobile phone.

“Are you going to blackmail me now? Like an FSB agent or something?” Ignat exploded, although he understood the question was rhetorical and batyushka Yegor would not answer it. Stuffing both hands into the pockets of his tracksuit pants, the boy turned his gaze to the poster with the soldier most closely resembling his father with a full head of red hair, like Ignat’s, thick eyebrows, gray, deep-set eyes, and an aquiline nose. “A true hero,” echoed in Ignat’s mind. He assured himself his father never removed the chevron with an image of a ruddy dog like Naida, which Ignat had given to his dad as a good luck talisman and a reminder of home.

“You are smart and capable of…” batyushka Yegor paused for the first time since the conversation started, searching for the right words, “capable of daring deeds. I want you to work for me. And don’t worry, it has nothing to do with the church.”

The boy left batyushka Yegor’s izba, and made his way back to Siuzvyaki. He didn’t pause along the way, traversing all eight-and-a-half kilometers in silence. Night was falling. Lights flickered in the windows of houses where people still lived. The housewives tossed the dung bricks into their ovens, causing thick clouds of smoke to billow ponderously from their chimneys.

“Only housewives left,” whispered Ignat, turning down his street. A month had passed since nearly all the men had disappeared from Siuzvyaki. Fifty of them had been conscripted during the “partial mobilization.” Only children, old men, and brazen dipsomaniacs remained.

IV. The Kindling

Petrovich was not subject to mobilization. Even if “full mobilization” had been declared, the old man was well over sixty and was missing four fingers on his right hand. Petrovich had sliced them off with a circular saw while cutting boards to repair a fence. Ever since then, he worked less and drank more. Ignat initially helped him take care of his livestock, until the old man had nothing left except for two cats.

Yet Petrovich remained a very soulful man. He was the only person Ignat could talk to about almost anything in the world. The old man knew the boy inside out. Ignat would come running to his place as a child, to escape his drunken father’s heavy hand and his mother’s quarrelsome tongue. Petrovich was an orphan. Ignat believed he was unfortunate in having parents. He would rather have lived alone, like Petrovich.

When the old man had become dispensable in the eyes of his fellow villagers, everybody stopped talking to him. In fact, he was always viewed with suspicion, because of his darker skin tone, coal black hair and eyes. It was rumored he was “non-ruski,” or, even worse, a Muslim. Old Makar once said Petrovich was not from around here and had only moved to Siuzvyaki back in the 1980s. Ignat could not verify this rumor, because Petrovich never spoke about his distant past. And now he had completely disappeared.

“Probably got drunk and drowned in the Obva River. It’s already the end of November, but there’s still no snow or frost, and the river isn’t frozen,” Marfa Ivanovna said, breaking Ignat’s thoughts about his old friend as he milked her cow Carmelita one morning. “Just like what happened to your mother’s brother. Do you remember Uncle Valyera? He fixed my watch once and it works to this day.”

Of course, he remembered Uncle Valyera. Everyone knew him and mentioned him in a variety of suitable and not-so-suitable situations. His uncle was the only car mechanic in Syuzvyaki, as well as in Kozmodyemyansk. After his death, people remembered him as a builder, a carpenter, a blacksmith, and even as a television repairman. These actually were all lies people concocted about Valyera and then believed in their own fabrications.

Marfa Ivanovna went on with her story about the watch, although Ignat was not listening to her. His attention was drawn to an urgent news broadcast on the radio. “Today, November 21, at half past seven in the morning, the Minister of Defense of the Russian Federation, Sergey Kuzhugetovich Shoigu, was found hanged in his Moscow apartment. The Kremlin has thus far declined to comment on the event…”

All of Siuzvyaki was chattering about the news. The Kremlin had always delayed official commentary on extraordinary events. This was its way of gauging the people’s initial reactions and identifying “unreliable elements and foreign agents.” It also provided the “common people” with the opportunity to rake everyone involved over the coals, prior to accepting the official explanation from the authorities.

Ignat listened carefully to the conversations his fellow villagers were having while tending to his neighbors’ livestock. The boy didn’t have to ask too many questions, since people simply loved to let their jaws loose on political topics.

Some said the other generals did not like the “arrogant Tuvan” and “a ruski should have been appointed a long time ago.” The explanation of “internal fighting within the United Russia party” and “his conflict with Wagner PMC” were also popular. Marfa Ivanovna authoritatively proclaimed, “Let them sort it out up there. It doesn’t concern us, the common people.”

Ignat also sought out the old drunk Makar, although he was unable to ascertain the drunk’s opinion on the latest developments in Russia, because the old man was snoring loudly, entangled in the shrubs next to the pile of ashes which had once been the Village Club. He was lying there perfectly positioned, knee to knee, ankle to ankle, reminding Ignat of an elegant noblewoman from St. Petersburg in tsarist times. “Crystal shoes, and voila, Cinderella!” Ignat smiled to himself.

Ignat did not hear anything surprising that day. After lunch, the boy was on his way home to take a nap, when he was drawn by the sound of anxious voices. A few men and women were trying to speak in hushed tones, though not very successfully. Somewhere close by, he heard them saying “Put it here!” “Grab the phone!” and “Where is baba Nadia?!” Ignat turned the corner and emerging from behind a fence he saw the village mayor Fyodor Vasilievich, his wife Vasilisa, and the rest of their family and children loading suitcases into two old Moskvich cars, one green, and the other yellow. They were in a hurry. The dog Yasha whined from inside the first car trying in vain to escape. They finished loading the cars and within few minutes drove off at full speed.

Ignat bid them farewell with his gaze, then ran to the central square. With three confident leaps, he was atop the ladder. The boy took his phone from his tracksuit pocket and raised his arm as high as he could reach. He waved it in the air, trying to catch any waves of invisible cellular communication. Apparently, the waves had not traveled the distance to Siuzvyaki today. “Batyushka Yegor said not to come to church without a good reason, Ignat recalled.

Somewhat disappointed, the boy returned home. The plastic bag with his mother’s lunch lay on the kitchen table where she had once again forgotten it. Smiling, he grabbed it and ran towards Kozmodemyansk.I’m no weakling or ballerina at all,” Ignat thought as he boarded the boat to cross the Obva River after he had run four kilometers and wasbarely out of breath.

The Church of Saints Nicholas and Alexandra was modest inside. The wooden iconostas, the screen bearing icons which separated the sanctuary from the nave, was only gilded along its outer contour and did not reach half the height of the central nave. Despite its size, no fewer than a hundred images of saints and scenes from the lives of Jesus and his disciples adorned the iconostas. The church interior was also furnished with several candelabras, a Russian flag, and a pair of propaganda posters extolling the might of the Russian armed forces. On one of them, a soldier in a balaclava held a smiling girl with a religious icon on his helmet in the spot for a headlamp.

“My little Ignat?” Surprised by the appearance of her son, Nadezhda Yemelyanova emerged from behind the counter where she sold candles, ignoring the old woman who was handing her a coin. She adjusted the translucent pink scarf on her head and approached the boy. “What are you doing here?”

“Here, you forgot your lunch,” the boy took the crumpled bag of bread and vegetables from his pocket and handed it to his mother. He smiled without moving a muscle around his eyes.

“Wow! I can’t believe my own eyes and ears,” the woman said, accepting the bag of food from the boy. Behind her, beyond her field of vision, the old lady grabbed some candles from the table and put them into a green canvas bag, looking around to make sure nobody saw her. “I will pray for you today; I will pray for your health.”

Ignat shifted his weight from one foot to the other a few times. “Okay, I’m leaving,” he said, finally forcing the words out.

“How is school?” his mother tried to ask him as he was walking away.

“We’re on break,” mumbled Ignat, rushing out the church door.

Batyushka Yegor was getting ready for the evening service. He straightened his cassock and was putting a blue epitrachelion around his neck when Ignat knocked on his izba door.

“Did they see you spying on them?” asked the priest when Ignat finished telling him the story about the village mayor’s flight.

“I don’t think so,” the boy shrugged.

“Good job,” batyushka Yegor praised him and held out his hand. Ignat shook it. “Keep your eyes peeled. A different reality awaits us all very soon. You need to know whom you can trust, and whom you can’t. You and I have a lot of work ahead of us.”

“So, what’s going to change?”

“You’ll see,” the batyushka gestured with his hand in front of him indicating it’s better not to ask about it. “In the meantime, keep visiting people, observe their homes, identify the unreliables. Keep tabs on who watches what television programs, and who is reading what books. And report to me without delay.”

“Understood,” Ignat raised his hand to his head in a salute. Yegor looked at him and raised an eyebrow in disdain.

“How do you feel after completing an assignment?” asked the priest at the door on his way to the church service.

Ignat thought about it. Like any teenager might, he felt proud after being praised, but he did not know how to put it into words. No one had taught him how to focus on his own emotions.

Control over something bigger than just your own home. Domination,batyushka Yegor suggested. “The same feeling you had when you stood by the burning Village Club, isn’t it? Most people are just kindling in a global conflagration. But you,” he emphasized, “you can reach great heights.”

“You’re probably right,” agreed Ignat, smiling for the second time in the last hour. This time, however, barely noticeable wrinkles appeared in the corners of his eyes.

“This is the freedom you were talking about,” said the priest, leading the boy out of the izba. After saying goodbye, Yegor strode along the wooden path to the church, where lights from candles and dim incandescent bulbs were flickering in the windows.

Ignat returned to Siuzvyaki in high spirits. Despite the cold November evening, two hours of walking and crossing the river seemed to have passed in a single pleasant instant. He had almost reached his izba, when he remembered he had to feed Petrovich’s cats. Woland and Margot were sitting at the entrance to the izba, huddled together against the cold gusts of wind. They began meowing loudly when they saw Ignat, bunting against his legs and circling his feet. Making his way through the contortions of feline affection, the boy opened the door and let the animals in to warm up.

Petrovich’s izba was once the exemplary home of a perfectionist. Every socket and all the light bulbs worked (when the electricity to the home wasn’t turned off, that is). Not a single chair creaked, and the carpets always had the dust beaten out of them. But, after he had injured his hand, everything gradually fell apart. Now his possessions lay strewn about, the dishes were unwashed, boards with nails sticking out of them were haphazardly scattered in the corners, and the stench of alcohol was everywhere. These became the primary attributes of Petrovich’s home.

Ignat opened a drawer in the kitchen table where the old man kept a supply of canned sardines, but it was empty. “That’s right, I fed them the last one yesterday,” the boy recalled. “I know Petrovich likes to hoard, there has to be more around here somewhere.” He began rummaging through all the kitchen cabinets, piled high with cast-iron pans, enamel bowls, and neatly polished wooden cutting boards which had never been used.

In one of the drawers containing paper and pens, Ignat found some pâté, placed there for reasons known only to Petrovich. Woland and Margot meowed loudly while he put the opened can down on the floor. Ignat was about to close the drawer when he noticed several books with worn covers. He had never seen Petrovich read anything. He took the books out of the drawer and slowly scrutinized them.

The books he had discovered were not in Russian. The title of the largest, cream-colored book was written in Cyrillic letters: QIRIMTATAR TILI. “Did Petrovich study the Crimean Tatar language?” Ignat thought. The other two books were visibly newer, their titles were written in Latin letters. The boy flipped through several pages. He guessed they were also written in Crimean Tatar, since there was a blue flag with a yellow symbol resembling the Russian letter “T” on their back covers.

“Petrovich, Petrovich,” Ignat said aloud. “Who are you, really, and where have you gone?”

The boy put the books back in place and tried to pet Woland and Margo. The cats, content after having been fed, were playing with each other, and ignored Ignat. The boy went outside where strong winds had waned, giving way to a profusion of fluffy snowflakes. Opening the gate to his yard, Ignat was surprised to see a light on in the window. “Mom couldn’t be back from church this early…” he said aloud and, without giving it a second thought, pulled a shovel out of the ground where he had left it for the last month since his mother had asked him to dig up the flowerbed beside their izba.

Ignat went inside, stepping slowly and carefully only on the floorboards he knew would not creak. Dishes clattered in the kitchen – there was definitely someone there. The boy peered in cautiously, raised the shovel above his head and, a split second later, dropped it to the floor, stunned. The clang echoed through the izba. The man standing in the kitchen with a cup in his hand leapt in surprise.

“Dad?” was all Ignat could manage, as he rushed over and embraced his father.

V. The Flame

Vladimir Yemelyanov had always served as a role model for his son, particularly after he had volunteered for the “special operation” in March 2022. Ignat imagined his father, looking like he had stepped out of one of those beautiful posters the Russian government hung everywhere, going “to tame the unruly khokhols, those dirty subhuman Ukrainians.” He dreamed of the day, a year or two from now, when they’d be in the same bunker, smoking and drinking coffee together while manning two machine guns and shattering wave after wave of enemy attacks. That’s precisely why he went to the Ruski Shtyk camp in the first place, to learn the basics of military service, however the training was too tough for him.

Yet, the man Ignat saw that evening was undeniably not the same man from his imagination. Vladimir Yemelyanov returned home gaunt, disheveled, and looking ten years older. He was dressed in civilian clothes, obviously not his own.

“Dad, what happened?” Ignat asked.

His father took a bottle of moonshine from the kitchen cabinet and poured himself a cup. He drank it in a single gulp, but not fast enough to hide his trembling hand from the boy.

“Son, we have to leave,” his raspy voice shook. “And be quick about it.”

“Were you demobilized? Wounded?” Ignat approached his father to have a closer look at him.

“More like demoronized,” muttered the father and poured himself another. “I’m lucky I wasn’t taken prisoner.”

“But we’re winning, it’s only a matter of finishing the job…” Ignat said.

“What the hell do you mean ‘we’re winning’?” barked his father and slammed his palm on the table. “We’re running away from those khokhols, scattering like chickens, for fuck’s sake. Belgorod was a slaughter.”

“So, you ran away?” Ignat could not hide his disappointment. He took a step back, stopped from retreating further when his back met the hard surface of the wardrobe. “Papa, are you a… deserter?”

“Be grateful I’m alive,” the father looked at his son condescendingly, then howled, “Aren’t you happy?”

Ignat spent the rest of the night in the sarayka. Manka the cow had already fallen asleep, together with the pigs Vovka and Vaska. The quiet clucking of the chickens rudely broke into Ignat’s train of thought.

“This is so horrible!” the boy could not hold back his tears. They poured down his cheeks in heavy drops, rolling over patches of red stubble. His fingers trembled while raising a lit cigarette to his lips. “If anyone finds out, I’ll never be able to wash away the shame. Not for the rest of my life!” he blubbered after taking a drag.

When his mother returned that night, his parents spent hours arguing. Vladimir Yemelyanov tried to convince his wife to pack their belongings and head for the Kazakh border because “everything will soon be fucked to hell.” But the woman was fanatical in her obstinance and categorically refused to go anywhere before Christmas. “Who is going to take care of the church? I’m the only one there!” A few punches from his drunken father did not further his cause – his mother’s crying and praying only grew louder.

Vladimir Yemelyanov always got his way, something that also made his son proud. A few months after getting a job in logging, he was managing a crew of lumberjacks. After a fire in their home, his father managed to secure financial help for repairs from the village mayor. Whenever he needed help digging the garden, few people refused his request. “But today… you gave in, and you gave in to a weak old crone,” Ignat summarized his thoughts.

His father did not go outside once over the course of the following weeks, not wanting anyone to see him. Moreover, he forbade turning on the TV or radio, paranoid the FSB was tracking him through the hidden cameras they had installed. Ignat ran off to Kozmodyemyansk almost every day to listen to the news. The Kremlin still had not issued any comments on Shoigu’s death. Instead, the spokesman for the Russian Ministry of Defense, Igor Konashenkov, now a three-star general, continued repeating the news about the huge “Neo-Nazi Ukrainian” losses. However, Ignat also noted Vladimir Putin’s voice was sounding more and more hysterical with each passing day. He no longer exuded the same confidence he had a year ago.

“Our statehood is under threat. Our duty, our sacred mission before future generations, is to protect the territorial integrity of the Russian state, to prevent its disintegration, whatever the cost…” said Vladimir Putin in his address to the nation on December 19, the day he declared martial law in Russia.

The first days of winter in 2022 were particularly severe in Siuzvyaki. The temperature did not climb above minus eighteen degrees Celsius. Ignat’s neighbors had already burned the lion’s share of the cow dung bricks they had stored, their stoves filling the surrounding air with a stench Nadezhda Yemelyanova continued calling “the aroma of frankincense.”

On December 24, the power went off in Siuzvyaki and Kozmodyemyansk. Wind gusts had damaged the electrical lines. “Now there won’t be any electricity until the Feast of Jordan. Our governor is horrible,” complained the old lady Praskovya when Ignat came to milk her goat Vyerka. “I haven’t seen Makar for a while… I hope he hasn’t frozen to death, lying drunk somewhere in the thickets.”

The residents of Siuzvyaki blamed the local governor Dmitrii Makhonin for all their troubles. In their eyes, he was a corrupt liar and drug addict, just like his predecessor Maksim Reshetnikov had been before the latter was unjustly promoted to the position of Minister of Economy of the Russian Federation. They had written complaints about all their governors to Vladimir Putin, suspecting the president “doesn’t know what’s really happening in the hinterlands.”

“Is there anything else you’d like to tell me?” batyushka Yegor asked Ignat the following day, over lunch, after the boy had delivered his report on the people’s mood.

“I… don’t… think… so,” Ignat scratched his head, trying to avoid the priest’s eyes. But the batyushka pierced him with a fierce look, as if peering directly into Ignat’s heart.

“Do you know why you were expelled from the Ruski Shtyk camp?” he asked. The boy shrugged. “Because you disobeyed orders. A soldier who doesn’t do as he is told is a bad soldier.”

Batyushka Yegor stood, folded his hands behind his back, and paced the room. It was a small space, so he ended up in front of the window quickly and looked out intently into the white expanse.

“You lied to me,” he said coldly.

“Do you mean about my father?” guessed Ignat. “I was going to tell you, but I didn’t want…”

“You hid a deserter, a traitor to the Fatherland! I cannot trust you,” batyushka Yegor interrupted him. He turned around and pointed to the door.

“I… I… I’ll make it up to you,” pleaded the boy. “I have done so much for you, spied for you. You said I’m destined for something greater!”

“Did you really think monitoring people in some small village like Siuzvyaki was useful?!” the priest roared at him. “I was testing your loyalty. You’re nothing but kindling.”

“I’m not kindling!” Ignat shouted, raising his fist above his head and threatening the priest, who took a half a step away from Igat.

Batyushka Yegor looked intently into the boy’s eyes as they were welling with tears. He exhaled, scratched his beard on the spot hiding his scar, then said calmly, and firmly,“This isn’t the first time you’re not telling me everything, is it?”

Ignat lowered his eyes. Of course, he hadn’t said anything about Petrovich. The boy believed he had enough control over the situation to not harm his one and only friend. He obviously wasn’t the only person who provided the priest with information.

“Do you know what happened to Petrovich?” Ignat asked.

“That doesn’t concern you anymore. Now leave!” batyushka Yegor frowned and pointed at the door.

Ignat tore out of the priest’s izba as if he’d been set on fire and nearly knocked his mother off her feet while she was walking along the trodden path worn though the snow to the church. She tried calling after her son, but he did not hear her, just as he did not feel the frosty air turning his face red. All the boy could hear in his ears was batyushka Yegor’s verdict over and over again, “You’re nothing but kindling!” He didn’t want to see or speak with anyone; all he had was an irresistible desire to burn something down. Remembering the Village Club engulfed in flames was the only thing that managed to warm Ignat’s heart.

Auntie Tamara had no problem selling the high school student a half liter of vodka and two packs of Bond Blue from her shop in Kozmodyemyansk. She asked her usual: “Have you heard anything about your father?” Ignat refused to satisfy her curiosity. He left the store in silence, opened the bottle of vodka, and started gulping as much as he could. A lump of vomit rose to his throat, although he managed to keep it down. Wiping his mouth on his sleeve, Ignat weakly stumbled into the thickets. Snow poured into his boots and the cold penetrated through to his very bones.

He never wanted to believe it, but he had known since childhood he would never get out of this godforsaken place. His parents did not want to hear his musings about moving to a big city, where there were more opportunities. When his father went to fight at the front, he hoped his military service might require the family to relocate someplace else. But now Ignat was completely convinced all he had to look forward to was logging work, liters of vodka, and an inglorious death. This was the fate of practically all the men he knew. Women still clung on to religion and children, while the “stronger sex” was totally dying out. Perhaps that’s how Petrovich died after disappearing without a trace. Oh, how Ignat needed him right now… he gathered himself and walked back to Siuzvyaki.

Closing the gate behind him, Ignat chased the dog Naida away from his feet. She was happy to see her owner and wouldn’t let him pass. Power had not been restored. Inside, the son found his father sprawled on his back in bed snoring loudly. He walked over to the bed, his gait steady, the vodka barely having gone to his head in the tremendous cold. The thick, tangled hairs of his father’s mustache moved in time like a metronome with his laborious breathing. He caught a glint of something on the floor in the moonlight. Ignat bent down, spotting the golden letters on the fat tome Crime and Punishment. The boy picked up the book and returned it to the bedside table, carefully aligning it with the edge of the table.

Ignat looked at his sleeping father. There he was, his role model, lying in front of him, old, drunk, weak, and scared to death. The boy went to his mother’s bedroom and took the large pillow she would kneel on when she recited her daily evening prayer.

Vladimir Yemelyanov didn’t fight back for long. He waved his hands frantically, trying to inhale air in a panic, but the heavy feather pillow prevented him from breathing. He managed to grab Ignat’s arms several times and tried pulling himself free. His struggle was in vain, because his son’s grip was stronger. “I’m not a weakling and I’m not a ballerina,” Ignat teased at the insults uttered by the Ruski Shtyk instructor in his head. As his father’s body spasmed, dying by Ignat’s hand, the boy licked his upper lip in delight.

Vladimir Yemelyanov finally surrendered his life after Ignat threw the full weight of his body on him. Then the boy carried the pillow back to its place, patting it down, and placing it with care on his mother’s bed. His father’s body, with its wide-open eyes and mouth, seemed to grow more attractive in the moonlight. “No one will even bother to ask what happened to you. Just like no one bothered asking who set the club on fire,” thought Ignat, standing over his father’s body. The difference this time around, Ignat didn’t want forgiveness. “Too bad you didn’t take the chevron of my dog Naida I made for you, when you ran away from the war.” The dog, seeming to have sensed what had happened, let out a protracted howl.

Huge puffs of steam erupting from his mouth, Ignat stumbled through the thickets in a tracksuit and unbuttoned jacket to the nearby village of Kozmodyemyansk. Auntie Tamara saw him just as she was closing the store and gave him a surprised look. Ignat walked with his head held high and his shoulders squared. He held a plastic bag tightly in his hands. The boy moved through the village steadily and confidently, ignoring the wet fluffy snowflakes pelting his face.

Only one person could have told batyushka Yegor about his father’s return and about Petrovich’s disappearance. Standing in the threshold of the church, he threw two small white balls, like marbles, onto the counter where his mother was counting candles. They had been wet as he carried them but were now hardened by the frost. Startled, Nadezhda Yemelyanova looked on as the two balls fell to the floor and rolled in opposite directions. Ignat turned and left the church and as he started walking along the path leading to the priest’s izba, he heard a shriek. His mother’s scream was loud at first, then quickly dissipated in the wintry blizzard.

“Breaking news! According to press secretary Dmitry Peskov, the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, has gone missing. He ceased all communications several hours ago. In accordance with federal legislation, Secretary of the Security Council Nikalai Platonavich Patrushev will temporarily perform the duties of the President of the Russian Federation. He called on all governmental authorities…” Ignat heard the announcement on the radio upon entering batyushka Yegor’s izba. The only source of light was a candle on the priest’s desk which barely illuminated the tiny room.

When batyushka Yegor saw the uninvited guest, he leapt from his chair and took a few steps back. He gripped the bedpost seeking additional safety. Ignat, who seemed to have grown several inches since their last meeting, stood a head taller than the priest. The boy dropped the package he was holding onto the table. Batyushka Yegor looked inquisitively at Ignat, who motioned with his head to the priest to open the gift. The priest took a few hesitant steps forward, opened the plastic bag by slowly tugging at its handle with one finger, and peered inside to see two empty black sockets which had, until recently, contained the eyes in Vladimir Yemelyanov’s severed head.

Ignat’s voice snarled as he said, “I am not the kindling. I am the flame.”

Other stories written by Oleksii Dubrov

Other stories illustrated by Yevheniia Polosina

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