At noon, Father Dobrushin returned to the Ecclesia. As soon as the midday prayers were over, he stepped into the kitchen and asked Ekaterina, “Where is she?”
Ekaterina looked up from her pots and pointed with her chin toward the small back room.
Father Dobrushin went down the short hall to the door. It was cracked open and Aksinya knelt on the floor and lay partially over the small cot. The priest cleared his throat and pushed the door open the rest of the way.
Aksinya leapt up from the floor like a child caught in a misdeed. She rubbed her eyes before she turned and faced Father Dobrushin. Her eyes were moist and red.
Father Dobrushin was silent for a moment then he stroked his beard, “May I speak with you?”
Aksinya ducked her head. She rubbed her face in the coarse fabric of her sleeves, “I don’t know what is wrong with my eyes lately. They will not stop watering.”
Father Dobrushin made a noncommittal sound. Aksinya slowly sat on the edge of the cot.
Father Dobrushin moved consciously to the far side of the room. He turned away from her, “I need to talk to you about your penance.”
“Yes,” Aksinya stared straight at him.
“Dear Countess, luxuria is your problem, therefore you must do everything in your power to fight its grip.”
Aksinya stuttered, “I understand this. That is part of my problem, but what do you suggest?”
“I only have this one dress. Ekaterina loaned it to me. My other one was ruined. I am also eating due to your benevolence. I drank too much before, but I have no money and you have not provided any alcohol to me. As to my body, my desire is no less, but I have less energy now and less temptation.”
Father Dobrushin wasn’t certain what to say. He swallowed, “About the sorcery…”
Aksinya lowered her head, “I do not intend to ever do sorcery again.”
“That is good. But to give up luxuria and sorcery all at once might be difficult.”
“I have no money and no implements to accomplish the sorcery. It is difficult for me to give up, but I am determined.”
“We will help you.” He paused a long moment, “I did want to ask you about the demon.”
“That was the name.”
“He is tall—over six or seven feet high. He is wholly black and made like a man but only muscle and bone. He was fangs and horns.”
Father Dobrushin swallowed, “And you see him often?”
“Doesn’t his appearance shock others?”
“He does not show himself to others in his actual form. Only I see him like that. To others he conceals his true form and his true words.”
Aksinya’s face fell, “I’m not certain you believe me.”
“Countess,” Father Dobrushin faltered, “This is all very difficult to believe.”
“Yes, I understand. It never was important to me before that anyone believe me.” She thought for a moment, “You believe in God, do you not?”
“Then why do you find it so hard to believe in a demon?”
“Do you believe in God, Countess?”
“I don’t believe in God.” She raised her face, “I have seen demons—I know there is a God.”
Father Dobrushin wrung his hands, “This demon, Asmodeus, are you certain he hasn’t given up on you?”
“He is waiting, still waiting. He seeks to do evil through me. I promise I will fight him with the last of my strength.”
He sighed, “I will research this demon, Asmodeus, and see what we can do against him.”
“That is very kind of you, but I think there is nothing you can do. I have sought for months to be rid of him. He still plagues me…”
“No, he detests the church and crosses. He has not tormented me here. I’m not sure he can.”
“Good. Then you should stay here for the time being. You are safe here, and here you should remain.”
Aksinya lowered her head, “Have you heard anything about the Lady Natalya.”
Father Dobrushin shook his head, “We have heard nothing, but I will know more tonight.”
When Aksinya raised her head, tears streaked her face, “What else should I do while I am under your care?”
“You must help Ekaterina in the rectory and in the Ecclesia.”
The sides of Aksinya’s lips raised, “I have been doing that.”
“You should spend time in prayer and study every day. I suggest you pray three times a day. You may join us in the daily prayers, if you wish.”
Aksinya clasped her hands together, “I would gladly do that. I did not think I was allowed. Thank you.” Aksinya hid her face at the side and stood abruptly, “I must help the Matushka with supper, now.” She preceded Father Dobrushin out of the room.
When Aksinya entered the kitchen, Ekaterina twitched her lips, “There you are, Countess. Do you know how to cook anything?”
Aksinya shook her head.
“Can you make tea?”
Aksinya shook her head again.
Ekaterina brought over a knife, “I will show you how to peel potatoes, yes.”
Aksinya sat in the corner of the kitchen and peeled potatoes. She wasn’t very fast, but it kept her occupied. Ekaterina attempted to teach her something about cooking. Aksinya listened attentively and tried to remember everything.
When the food was cooked, Ekaterina asked Aksinya, “Countess, do you know how to set a table?”
Aksinya shook her head, “I know where the silver is supposed to go, and if you show me…”
Ekaterina smiled, “We have no silver, but I will show you.” She handed Aksinya a fork and a spoon for each place.
Aksinya placed them on the table while Ekaterina instructed her. Aksinya’s lips turned up, “It wasn’t difficult.”
“Most things are not. You just have to know what to do.”
Father Makar entered the kitchen. He stared at Aksinya for a moment, but sat at the table.
Ekaterina nodded to Aksinya, “Please get Father Dobrushin. He will be praying in the Ecclesia.”
Aksinya nodded and stepped through the door and down the hall. She passed through the sacristy with the hanging vestments and into the nave. Father Dobrushin knelt at the altar. His hands were clasped before him so tightly the veins on them stood out. Aksinya barely made a sound as she approached.
She stopped in amazement. Her stomach didn’t bother her. The crucifix between her breasts didn’t burn her. Her body felt light and free. She stood there transfixed. She felt a touch on her arm and started. Father Dobrushin smiled, “Countess?”
“Ah,” she muttered, “I’m to call you to supper.”
“What were you thinking?”
Her lips turned up a little, “How pleasant it was to not feel pain in here. I have lived for a long while with only nausea and suffering when I entered a church.”
“That is a great thing to celebrate. Come to supper. It will surely not incite luxuria.”
“It will not because I had a hand in making it. A small hand…I did peel the potatoes and set the table.”
“That is a good beginning.” Father Dobrushin stood, “Come, let’s go to supper.”
Aksinya followed the priest back to the kitchen. He sat, and she sat across from him. Father Makar said the prayer and they all crossed themselves. They had boiled potatoes covered with bacon grease and flour gravy. Some tiny bits of bacon speckled the gravy. There was also strong Russian tea.
After supper, Aksinya and Ekaterina cleaned the dishes and the kitchen while Father Makar and Dobrushin spoke quietly at the table. Ekaterina pushed the hair away from her face with the back of her hand and whispered, “They would speak until the morning hours if I let them.”
“You will not let them?”
“Makar is my husband. I have work in the morning and he has work too. It would be foolish for me to go to a cold bed and foolish for him to not be able to accomplish his work in the morning.”
“You have to look after a husband just as you would look after a boy—they are just older boys.”
Father Makar glanced up, “Just what are you telling her Katyushenka?”
“About how foolish men are…”
Aksinya stared at her.
Father Makar frowned.
Ekaterina put up her finger, “Tut, tut, don’t say a word Makaruska. You wouldn’t want Father Dobrushin to have to take your confession more than once this week.”
Aksinya still stared at her, “They must confess to one another?”
“Of course they must confess. They must confess more than anyone. Everyone sins, but if you wish to help others, you must be first willing to help yourself.”
Aksinya glanced back at the bowl she held. She placed it carefully on the counter then she stepped over to the table.
She stood silently until Father Makar turned her a stern look, and asked, “Do you need anything?”
“Please, Father Makar, have you heard anything about Lady Natalya.”
He looked her up and down, “No, nothing yet.” While Aksinya’s face was still downturned, he signaled with his eyes to Ekaterina.
Ekaterina came to Aksinya’s side, “The dishes are almost finished, Countess. We will leave the rest to Father Makar and Father Dobrushin. I’ll help you prepare for bed.”
Aksinya clenched her hands together, “Is there something you aren’t telling me?”
Father Makar pushed his chair back a little to get out of Aksinya’s reach, “There is nothing to tell. No one knows what happened to her. I…I’ll check again tomorrow. You needn’t be concerned.”
“But I am concerned.” Aksinya wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, “I need her.”
Ekaterina clucked, “That’s all right. You have us, and you have God. We will help you, and we will try everything to find the Lady Natalya.” She took Aksinya by the arm and led her toward the back of the rectory.
Ekaterina took Aksinya to the room and shared with Father Makar. In it was a big schrank, a desk and chair, and a large bed topped with a thick comforter. Ekaterina led Aksinya to the chair and sat her in it. She took a brush and began to brush Aksinya’s hair, “You have beautiful hair, Countess.”
“Is it growing out?”
“Very nicely. Why did you cut it?”
“I gave it to the demon to contract him.”
Ekaterina paused a moment then continued to brush Aksinya’s hair. She didn’t say anything for a while. Then she asked, “Countess, do you need anything?”
“I need nothing, and right now, I have nothing. Perhaps the two go together.” She turned suddenly in the chair, “Let me brush your hair.”
Ekaterina thought a moment then nodded. She handed the brush to Aksinya and sat.
Aksinya fumbled a little with the thick braids in Ekaterina’s hair, “I used to be so good with braids, but I haven’t been able to…” Aksinya ran the brush through the Matushka’s hair. Ekaterina’s hair was thick and dark with silver streaks. It wasn’t as fine and soft like Aksinya’s hair, but it was very wonderful to feel.
Ekaterina closed her eyes, “Are you happy here, Countess?”
“I don’t know what happiness is.”
“Is that so? Tomorrow, you will help me all day. We must prepare breakfast and supper. It is also the day to wash.”
“I have never cooked anything, and I don’t know about washing.”
“Then you will learn.”
“Yes, I will learn.”
In the morning, when Ekaterina went to get Aksinya, Aksinya was already awake. She prayed the rosary around her neck. The moment the door opened, Aksinya jumped to her feet. Ekaterina asked, “Are you ready?”
They walked together to the kitchen. Ekaterina took a breath, “How is the burn on your chest?”
“Does it pain you much?”
“I will check it for you today.”
“Today I will show you how to make kasha and tea. We have milk and honey so it will be very good. We will eat as well as the patriarch in .”
Aksinya’s lips curled up a little at that.
In the kitchen, Aksinya carefully followed Ekaterina’s instructions and stood and stirred the kasha while the tea seeped. Ekaterina started with fresh tea leaves and prepared a very potent brew. Throughout the day, she could then make fresh tea by diluting the concentrated tea with boiling water. Aksinya watched what Ekaterina did. Finally she remarked, “Lady Natalya never made tea like that for me.”
Ekaterina laughed, “She probably made you English tea. If we had a samovar, we could have tea any time we wanted all day long. As it is, we will have to heat water at noon and for supper. Now put everything on the table.”
Aksinya raised her head.
“Just put it on the table,” Ekaterina smiled.
The moment Aksinya finished placing the food on the table, Father Makar and Father Dobrushin magically appeared. They sat down in their usual seats and then Ekaterina and Aksinya.
Father Makar offered a blessing and they crossed themselves. Ekaterina served them from the large pot on the table. Aksinya poured the tea into the large mugs. Father Makar took a long drink of the tea. He ate the kasha with relish.
Aksinya sipped her tea and sniffed at the kasha.
Father Makar asked, “Anything wrong, Countess?”
Aksinya didn’t look up, “I’ve never had anything like this before.” She took a bite of the kasha.
Father Makar finished his bowl, “Well that’s all we have until supper. It’ll stick to your ribs.”
Aksinya slowly devoured the buckwheat groat porridge. She washed it down with the very strong tea. When she was finished, she took her bowl and mug to the dish tub and laid them inside. She put water on to heat to wash the morning dishes.
Ekaterina took her arm, “Let the water heat. We’ll do the dishes later. It is time now for the morning prayers.”
Aksinya followed Ekaterina into the Ecclesia. She paused at the door for a moment, but didn’t feel any pain. Instead, she felt her spirit leap when she passed through the doorway. She was surprised to see so many people in the hard seats. Most of them knelt in front of the pews with their heads bowed. Father Makar and Father Dobrushin stood behind the rail at the back and also prayed. Ekaterina led Aksinya to a rank of padded seats at the side. She gave a smile, “Being the Matushka of the Ecclesia has some privileges. She knelt on the padded kneeler in front of the seat, and Aksinya copied her.
Right at seven, Father Makar started the service. They celebrated the morning prayers without communion. Father Dobrushin helped him and lectured the readings. Father Makar gave a very short homily. At the end, they sang a hymn and Father Makar announced the blessing. The people left and Ekaterina led Aksinya back to the kitchen. The water was hot by then and Ekaterina made tea while Aksinya poured boiling water into the dish tub and mixed in some cooler water and lye soup to wash the dishes. Ekaterina put more water on to boil, “On wash day, we get all the tea we want. The water has to keep boiling all day, you see.”
Aksinya’s lips turned up at that. She didn’t glance up, “What do Father Makar and Father Dobrushin do during the day?”
“They visit the parishioners who are sick or have needs. They pray with people and take communion to those who can’t get out. They go to the train station when we hear that refugees are coming in.”
“How would they find out about the Lady Natalya?”
Ekaterina sighed, “They would check with the hospitals and the doctors we know. They would check with the police. The authorities have been very good to us here. They will check with the school…”
“Do you think they would check at my house?”
“Makar told me he went there first…”
“There was no one at home.”
Aksinya let out her breath.
Ekaterina whispered, “Have you heard from the demon?”
Aksinya shook her head.
“Thank God for that blessing,” Ekaterina crossed herself, “I don’t know what I would do if you said you had seen him in here.”
“He would not like it here.”
“That is doubly good for us.”
They spent the rest of the day doing the wash. They had a break at noon when Father Makar and Father Dobrushin conducted the noon prayers with communion. The Ecclesia was filled. Aksinya and Ekaterina communed, and Aksinya was amazed that she could take the bread and wine mixture without nausea. They drank tea in the afternoon and finished the wash. When all the laundry was hung in the weak sunlight behind the rectory, they cleaned the Ecclesia.
Ekaterina remarked, “Usually, on wash day, I don’t have time to get to the Ecclesia, but today with your help, we were finished early.”
They didn’t finish cleaning the Ecclesia. Around five, Ekaterina took Aksinya back into the kitchen and Aksinya peeled potatoes and cut onions. Ekaterina put the vegetables with some thin slices of bacon in a pot and left it to cook while they went to evening prayers. The Ecclesia was almost as full as in the morning. Ekaterina and Aksinya sat in their seats to the side. She sent Aksinya back once to check the food on the stove. They all ate together after evening prayers and Aksinya went to bed. She fell asleep with the prayers of the rosary still on her lips.
This is how Aksinya’s days progressed with only the variation of the domestic work of the rectory and Ecclesia. Every evening, Aksinya asked about Natalya, but she received no information. Father Makar explained every time she asked that he still sought the Lady Natalya, but that no one knew what had happened to her.
On Saturday following the morning prayers, Ekaterina prepared to take Aksinya with her to the market, but Father Dobrushin blocked the door when Aksinya tried to leave the rectory.
Ekaterina pursed her lips, “What’s wrong Father Dobrushin. The Countess can help me with carrying everything. She will be very helpful.”
Aksinya stood silent.
Father Dobrushin answered carefully, “I don’t think she should appear in the marketplace. Right now, until we determine what is going on, she should remain in the Ecclesia.”
Ekaterina glared at him, “I would like her to accompany me, and I’m certain she would like to go out.”
Father Dobrushin sighed, “I will get a Greek Bible for the Countess to study today. That will make up for missing the market.”
Aksinya didn’t raise her head, “I would like to study.”
Ekaterina made a face, but she turned, “Very well. I’ll be back before midday communion. Father Dobrushin, look after my charge.”
Father Dobrushin’s face was very serious, “I shall.” After Ekaterina was out of the sight, Father Dobrushin gestured toward Aksinya. She wasn’t watching. He cleared his throat, “Countess.”
She glanced up, “Yes.”
“Come with me. I’ll give you an old Bible to study. It is a little worn, but you should be able to read it without any problem.” Father Dobrushin led Aksinya to the side of the ark, “Wait here. I’ll get the Bible.” He went between the rails and to the back of the ark. After a few moments, he returned with a large book in his hands. He handed it to Aksinya, “You may read this all you like.”
“May I take it to my room?”
“Yes. If you have nothing else you need to do, you should study it now.”
Aksinya clasped the large book to her chest. The place still stung between her breasts where the crucifix had burned her. She took the Bible back to her room and began to read it. She was so intrigued with what she read, Ekaterina had to retrieve her for the midday communion. Following communion, Aksinya continued to read until Ekaterina called her to come help with supper. Aksinya dragged herself away from the book and went to help.
After dinner, Aksinya begged a taper from Ekaterina and continued to read until the wax and floss was entirely gone. Then she prayed her rosary until she fell asleep. Her last prayer was that she might have light to spare so she could spend enough time to memorize the Greek Bible Father Dobrushin had lent her.
After that, Aksinya’s days were completely filled with her work, prayer, and memorization of the Greek Bible.
A couple of weeks passed as though they were days. The season of the church was now lent. They all fasted, although Aksinya wasn’t certain they could actually fast more than they did. The food in the rectory of the Ecclesia was filling, but it was nothing like what Aksinya had been used to. At lent, there was less meat, but she ate plenty of potatoes and almost all the tea she wished.
Father Makar came home in a strange mood Saturday evening only two weeks from Easter. Although Aksinya didn’t notice, he wouldn’t look at her at all. His eyes kept shifting toward her all through supper. When Aksinya was finished eating, Ekaterina pushed her toward the door to her room. She placed a taper in Aksinya’s hands, “Here, you might want to read tonight. I’ll take care of the kitchen.”
Aksinya was so happy to get back to her Bible, she didn’t think much, but took the taper in her hand. She stammered, “Th…thank you, Matushka.”
Aksinya headed down the corridor to her room until she heard the Lady Natalya’s name mentioned. Aksinya had asked, like clockwork, but Father Makar hadn’t been able to tell her anything. Aksinya quietly moved back down the hall and snuffed her taper. The door to the kitchen was open. The three sat at that table. Ekaterina wasn’t working on the dishes at all.
Father Makar was speaking, “The abbot won’t reveal anything about the Lady Natalya to me.”
“Does he know the Countess is here?”
“They have no idea.”
“They are looking for her?”
“That isn’t clear either. The Reverend Mother doesn’t know anything.”
Father Dobrushin breathed out, “It’s been almost three weeks. You’d think we would hear something, anything.”
“They may have concluded she is insane too.”
“I’ve watched her all this time. She is odd, but she is certainly not insane.”
Ekaterina added, “I agree. The Countess is anything but insane.”
“She believes she contracted with a demon. She is certainly insane.”
Father Dobrushin continued, “Whether she is insane or not, is not the main question to my mind. What I want to know is does the Cardinal seek her, and what happened to the Lady Natalya?”
Father Makar hunched over the table, “The Lady Natalya is certainly not dead.”
Father Dobrushin and Matushka Ekaterina stared at him.
Father Matar shrugged, “I went to every funeral in this city since the Countess came to us. I saw the dead. The Lady Natalya was not among them. Unless the Catholics are hiding something more sinister than a lady-in-waiting, I am certain, she isn’t dead.”
“Then where is she?”
Father Makar shrugged again, “If I knew, I would tell you. I honestly don’t know. I’ve checked with anyone who was close to the two of them.”
Ekaterina asked, “What about Ernst von Taaffe?”
“To tell you the truth, I have not been able to approach him. He is in seclusion. From what the Countess told us, I’m sure he would have nothing to do with the Lady Natalya. I was shocked myself when I heard what happened. The poor boy was embarrassed and certainly stripped of his honor.”
“You checked at her house.”
“I check every day. No one answers. No one is there.”
“But no one is looking for her?”
“Not as far as I can tell.”
Father Dobrushin clasped his hands on the top of the table, “I just can’t believe it. Surely her aunt and uncle…”
Father Makar shook his head, “Even they aren’t looking.”
Ekaterina scowled, “Do you think they were so shocked by what happened?”
Father Dobrushin pressed his hands more tightly together, “I’m not gong to let her out of the Ecclesia yet. For now, I think it is too dangerous.”
Father Makar cocked his head, “If they aren’t looking, then there is no danger for us. Maybe no one wants a crazy woman like her.”
Ekaterina’s voice was soft, “Hush Makaruska, have you thought, that perhaps we are the only ones who might care for her. She is not like most people. She is a little strange, but she has no place else to go and no one else to turn to.”
“I don’t like having her here. I have a bad feeling about everything connected to her. Her preoccupation with the idea of a demon or with sorcery is just laughable. I think she should be under lock and key in an insane asylum, but Father Dobrushin won’t let me report her.”
Ekaterina’s voice was hard, “I would stop you too.”
“She claimed to kill her lady-in-waiting. Doesn’t that mean something to you? What if she tries to kill someone else?”
“We have yet to determine if what she said was true. We can’t find any evidence that the Lady Natalya was hurt much less killed.”
“If what the Countess said is true, she is a murderer. If what she said is not true, she is insane, but you two still want to keep her in an Ecclesia. If she really is a sorceress and called a demon, she is the most dangerous person to have within these walls.”
Ekaterina’s voice rose, “But she confessed. She has been a great help to me.”
“She confessed to murder. She may be forgiven by God, but she has yet to face the true punishment for her crimes.”
Father Dobrushin opened his hands, “Everything you say Makar is true. I just know there is more to her and this whole thing than we know. She is forgiven, but we will not allow her to escape the just punishment for her crimes. Even she should understand this.”
“She doesn’t know this Dobrushin—she is insane.”
“I hear you, brother. Let’s sleep on it. She hasn’t caused us harm. We can keep her here a little longer. Check with the police again tomorrow.”
Father Makar mumbled.
“I, for one, need to get to bed.”
Ekaterina was dismayed, “What about me. You had me send my helper away, and now I have the entire kitchen to clean. Father Makar and Father Dobrushin stood. Both their voices came at almost the same time, “I’ll help.”
Aksinya crept down the short corridor to her room. She didn’t relight the taper. She didn’t read her book. She lay on her cot under the woolen blanket and thought about everything she heard. Finally, she made up her mind and fell into a fitful sleep.