Father Varenyk swung the censer at the casket, casting smoke across the freshly fallen snowflakes. After completing his final circle about the grave he handed the censer to his deacon Serhii.
The priest removed a vial from the pocket of his vestments and unscrewed the cap. Stepping as close as he dared to the slushy cut of the grave he leaned over the center of the casket and tapped the vial like a saltshaker. A stream of fine dirt poured out. With the dirt he drew the shape of a cross atop the casket. He intoned:
“The earth is the Lord’s, and all that fills it; the world, and all who live in it.”
Several gravestones over, unseen by the priest and the handful of elderly parishioners, a creature lurked: a cat, its white fur blending into the snowy ground, only its red eyes to give it away. Following a compulsion it could not possibly fathom the cat suddenly bolted and charged at the funeral.
Father Varenyk had just returned the vial of dirt to his pocket when a flash of white entered his field of vision. The cat took two long running strides then leapt onto the casket. It sat briefly upon the dirt cross and then jumped off the casket to the other side of the grave.
Serhii emitted a wheezy gasp that sounded like, Kheeee!
Varvara Babenko said, “Oh dear God!”
The priest exclaimed, “Ekh!”
After the shock had passed Serhii, still holding the smoking censer, chased after the cat, who escaped the elderly man with ease. Viktor Rudenko for his part located a stone in the dirt pile beside the grave and hurled it across the graveyard at the cat, barely missing. Meanwhile the priest attracted the attention of Polycarp the gravedigger, who was sitting inside the cab of his backhoe smoking a cigarette and trying to stay warm. Polycarp first saw the running Serhii, then turning his head in the direction of flight spotted the fleeing cat. Aghast he poured out of the backhoe cabin, picked up a shovel and chased the cat, who was by this point far away in the field of gravestones.
Father Varenyk surveyed the damage. The line of dirt forming the base of the cross was smeared by the cat’s feet. He brought out the vial again and repaired the cross. While doing so he noticed that his hand betrayed a slight tremor.
Serhii returned with the censer, followed by the gravedigger. The priest glared at Polycarp who, as representative of the cemetery, he held responsible for the outrage of the cat. The gravedigger shrugged and threw down the shovel.
After that bizarre interruption, Father Varenyk completed the final steps of the ritual. Taking the censer from the deacon he raised it by the base and upended it over the center of the casket, pouring out the hot coal and remaining incense, which struck the snowy top of the casket with a faint hiss. He intoned:
“Earth, dust and ashes is what you are, O man, and therefore, according to the will of God, you return to the earth once again.”
He handed the censer back to Serhii, who gave him a large wooden cross in return. Standing at the center of the casket he said:
“This grave is sealed until the second coming of our Lord, Jesus Christ, in the name of the Father—” here he touched the cross to the head of the casket, “—and of the Son—” he touched the foot of the casket, “—and of the Holy Spirit, —” the right side, “—Amen,” and the left side.
That done the priest gave a final unspoken prayer for the deceased: And may God forgive your unconfessed sins, Pankrat Kravchuk.
He gestured to the gravedigger, extending his hand palm down and lowering it. Polycarp flipped a lever and the coffin resting on bands descended into the grave. Father Varenyk flicked holy water at the casket until it came to rest at the bottom of the grave. “You may pay your last respects,” he said.
Serhii picked up a freshly dug clod of earth and standing at the edge of the grave he gave a silent prayer before dropping the earth onto the casket. It struck with a resounding clonk. He winced.
The other parishioners followed him in like manner, saying prayers and tossing earth into the grave. When it was Varvara’s turn she showed reluctance to draw too near to the grave, crossing herself repeatedly with her right hand before letting slip the earth from her left. Finally Polycarp tossed in his own clump and began the work of closing up the grave.
The priest and parishioners left the burial site, meandering through the gravestones along a path Polycarp had shoveled out of the knee-high snow. Serhii, walking beside the priest, said, “Sorry about the noise, Father.”
“The knock on the coffin. The clump of earth I threw must have had a rock in the middle.”
“It’s nothing. Earth has rocks.”
“I just wouldn’t want the noise to wake up old Kravchuk. Heh heh.” (The laughter words were spoken; he wouldn’t dare actually laugh in a cemetery.)
“Don’t talk nonsense, Serhii,” the priest said mildly. “Only Christ can raise the dead, at the Last Judgment.”
They passed through a gate in the chain-link fence that surrounded the cemetery, which was not a large one, just sixty odd graves in an acre carved out of a potato field. In the Utica, New York area, this was the only choice for a Ukrainian who wished to rest among their own people.
In the parking lot, the priest had just reached the deacon’s car when Viktor Rudenko came up to him. “Father?…”
“Yes, Pan Rudenko.”
“The strangest thing, about the cat, Father…” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”
“Nor have I,” the priest said. “But the cat is an animal without reason. There is no meaning to its deeds.”
“Ah…” Rudenko said, unconvinced.
Varvara Babenko was just behind him, and in a state of great agitation she pushed herself forward. “But surely Father…I…I have never seen such a—such a—abomination as that cat jumping on the coffin!” She crossed herself.
“That well may be, Pani Babenko. But there is nothing to be done now, and we all must get out of the cold. Good day, Pani.” Without awaiting her response he opened the passenger door of the car and got in.
As Serhii made several attempts at starting the car, Father Varenyk, with studied nonchalance, turned to look back at the Kravchuk gravesite. Polycarp was bustling about it, removing the coffin-lowering apparatus. There was no sign of the cat. A spontaneous shiver wracked the priest’s back.
He reached into his leather bag where he kept his Bible and other necessities of the job. Removing a steel flask he uncapped it and offered it to Serhii. “How about a little drink to warm up?”
Serhii smiled. “Thank you, Father.” He took a drink and handed it back to the priest, who took a deep swig, then another quick one, before closing the flask.
He was not being honest with Serhii. The drink was only partly to warm up. The real reason was to steady his nerves, which had been badly rattled by the incident with the cat. Although he did believe that animals were not rational, he also believed their actions were guided by outside powers—hopefully God, but possibly other forces. He could not imagine any positive meaning of this sign of the cat invading Pankrat Kravchuk’s burial. At worst it could be the calling card of the Devil himself, and the trouble would not end at the funeral.
After fleeing the man blowing fragrant smoke, the cat leapt over the fence at the edge of the cemetery and escaped into a stand of trees. He passed through these woods to reach a two-lane road, which he darted across to enter a poor neighborhood of boxy houses. He turned down the driveway of the fifth house, and climbed the wooden steps onto the back porch. He rubbed the side of his body against the door, which was dry and hinted of warmth. He spoke again and again.
There was a noise of steps approaching from inside. The moment the door opened a crack he darted in, not bothering to look at who saved him from the cold, but judging by the foot smell, it was the boy. He ran straight down the stairs into the cellar. A laundry basket full of clothes rested on the cement floor not far from the furnace. He leapt atop the clothes and let his body sink in.
When he felt warm again he patrolled the cellar. The area that concerned him most lately was in the far corner of the cellar, where an open plywood box held a quantity of potatoes. Mice had been appearing in this potato bin with some frequency. The cat approached the bin stealthily, and once within range he leapt up, perching on the edge of the plywood wall for a moment before pushing off and landing inside the bin.
The potatoes were stacked in a sloping pile along the near wall and the cat landed midway down the slope. His right front paw (which happened to be the same one that had smeared the cross of dirt on the casket) knocked a single potato loose. That potato rolled down the hill of potatoes onto the wooden floor of the bin, striking it with a gentle thud.
After a while the cat convinced himself there was no mouse in the potato bin. He was about to climb out when he heard footsteps on the cellar stairs, drawing near. He scampered down the potato slope and hid himself in the darkest corner of the bin.
A face appeared above the bin. It was the woman. The cat lay very still as the woman’s hands picked out several potatoes. Then her hands froze, as her eyes connected with the cat’s eyes…
“God!” Once her fright had passed she laughed. “Snowman! What are you doing in the potatoes?”
The cat said nothing. The woman, chuckling to herself, left with her potatoes. The cat jumped out of the bin. He continued his inspection of the dark places of the cellar, until hunger forced him to abandon his patrol.
He climbed the stairs and stepped into the kitchen. His food dish was empty, but the woman was cooking and the kitchen was warm. He stretched out under the table and waited for food to arrive. To pass the time he washed. There were many dirty parts to clean from his adventure in the graveyard.
Back in the potato bin, the single potato dislodged by the cat continued to rest on the plywood floor. A speck of dirt adhered to the potato, deposited by the cat’s paw. Nestled in the heart of the speck was a single spore that had made the journey all the way from Ukraine. Given the way the rolling potato had landed, the speck pressed against the somewhat damp and cool wood. For the microscopic spore within the dirt, these conditions were favorable.
After several hours the casing of the spore dissolved, exposing the cell within to the nutrients of the potato skin. After several more hours the cell split, creating two smaller cells. Soon after, these two cells split, creating four cells. On and on, the cells split.
The growth had begun.