“Please, mama, you must calm down. It’s not good for your heart.”
Father nodded from his place in the kitchen doorway, drying a plate. Leah’s brother, Ethan, watched his grandmother with expectant expression and drawn breath, probably certain she’d fall to the floor, as she had only a couple of months before. Lucky, they all lived together. She’d never have survived the stroke on her own. The doctor instructed them to keep her calm, but often Nana demonstrated the high drama associated with a teenaged girl.
Leah stood up and walked over to her grandmother, taking the newspaper from her hand. “What is it, Nana?”
Her brother announced from his spot on the couch. “It’s the cyber bullying article on the front page. I’ve no worries, Nana. No one bullies me.” Ethan pushed up his sleeve and clinched his fist to display a meager bicep, though probably more than most ten year olds could lay claim to.
A smile crossed the lined woman’s face. “No sweetheart, no, this is much worse.”
Leah’s mother, Maura, managed to get Nana to sit in a chair with some difficulty since only one leg worked right. Leah looked away. It reminded her of the time she’d watched a three-legged dog lie down. The dog never acted like it minded, but it still made her feel bad watching it.
Crouching beside the chair, her mother took Nana’s hand. “Tell me, tell us.”
Pointing with one hand to Leah, who still clutched the newspaper, she commanded. “Read it to them. Let them know the barbarians still exist. There is no justice, no fairness, no equal rights, and no protection.” Her voice became louder and stronger with each word. Her body shook as she half rose from the chair.
Mother cut her eyes meaningfully at her husband, who nodded at Leah, who paged through the paper.
Leah searched for what could be upsetting her grandmother. “Lead story was local boy signing with an NFL contract.” Both her father and mother shook their head no. She kept paging through the paper. “A huge storm is predicted for the Northeast?”
Grandmother waved her hand in a circle to keep going.
“Ah.” She knew that wasn’t the right story, but what could it be? On the back page of the front section near the fold was a small article. She knew instinctively it was the one her grandmother meant. “Yesterday, in Papua, New Guinea, a twenty year old woman accused of being a witch was burned alive. The young widow and mother left two small children behind.”
Her grandmother shook off her daughter’s hand. Stabbing the air with an emphatic index finger, she crowed, “See, see they’re at it again.” Her dark eyes darted around the room to make sure she had everyone’s attention. “That poor girl. What was her crime, really?”
Maura sighed. “Just twenty, so young. Could be she was too pretty and attracted another woman’s husband’s eye. Calling her a witch is always a good way to get rid of her. It worked countless times before.”
Her father laid down the plate and towel and walked into the living room to join the conversation. He sat down on the couch on the other side of Ethan. “Something happened in their village. Chickens weren’t laying or a goat died. It’s always easier to blame it on the evil eye or a hex, than accept it for what it is. Just life, luck, usually both. People always seem to believe life owes them more than they deserve. The only way to rationalize not getting it is to blame someone for blocking it.”
Ethan joined in. “Just like calling someone a cheat, a liar, or even a bully.”
“In a way,” Maura agreed. “But not exactly. People don’t feel it is okay to kill people for telling a lie or even being accused of telling a lie. The hatred goes bone deep, associated with fear and helplessness. Even the simple fact she had no man to stand for her would be enough to persecute her.”
Leah stood silent, thinking that only a few years separated her from the young woman burned alive. Yesterday, her history teacher, Miss Santiago, grew as animated as Nana talking about human slavery in the US. Her voice became shrill as she spoke of undocumented workers not receiving any pay for their work and kept in unheated garages, treated no better than animals. After class, the popular girls, Lauren, Brianna, and Alexis joked about Miss Santiago’s behavior, even pretending to be her, waving their arms and bugging out their eyes, spitting out the words. Most of the other students pretended to enjoy their performance. Leah didn’t. Besides being mean, she had no reason to appease the girls. She already knew she was on their short list.
Yeah, she knew her teacher went overboard, but she knew without having it spelled out that it was personal. Often Leah knew things without words, just as she knew someone close to Miss Santiago died under such conditions. Leah knew all about taking things personally.. A woman burned as a witch was personal for her family. How could it not be when her entire family followed the old ways? Her family circled her grandmother, trying to calm her down without much success
Her back up against the wall, the offending newspaper still in her hand, she wanted to throw it to the ground and flee. An image took shape in her mind. It was dark, most likely night. The sound of running, yelling, and then screaming, a long prolonged scream as if whoever uttered it felt absolute terror. A spark charged the night, then caught fire and became a flame, growing into an orb of light. It illuminated sweaty, dark faces with feverish eyes and determined countenances. Two strong men stripped to the waist held a woman between them. Her long hair covered her face as she struggled.
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