Fellow-Countrymen

Le Jour ni l’Heure 9111 : autoportrait en fossoyeur — l’enterrement du chien Ottokar, Plieux, lundi 2 septembre 2013, 18:43:20

All of a sudden I watched the God in heavens, he revealed himself amongst the clouds there. I fancied him just this way: an elderly person with a grey-haired beard. And strangely enough he looked right like an old man we had to inter that day. Then we had just come to a cemetery to dig a grave. It was winter, February, and much snow caked up on the burial ground. We didn’t really care and shoveled it away but the ground was frozen.

We had to light a campfire, and digging went on more active while the campfire marked the grave’s limits. It all occurred in winter, in other case we would seek out a better site to set up the grave nearer to his kinsmen there. But how could one find them under a thick snow cover coating all about! While no relative was present with us to dig a grave, how could one sort out the proper place.

Thus we built a fire next to the graveyard edge: we brought some brushwood, shoveled away snow and chopped dead boughs. At first we nearly had to hack the frozen turf. Then the ground under the campfire got warmed up and it was good to dig. Sure it was all quite new for me so I just did what the others did, that’s all. The first time I came to a cemetery to dig a grave, and then I watched the God.

Nobody ever died until I finished school, more than that I never heard of anybody to die around. When I went to my home from school, I ever met a living soul: Aunt Martha was driving hens off her kitchen garden, a dog was barking pigs away a fence, and greybeard Serke-moochi was sitting on a bench in front of his house smoking there. He liked machorka, a low-grade tobacco, and all were busy around in their own way.

I don’t remember if Mishka went to the burial ground with us then, but Leshka in fact was there. There mostly came those not too busy that day, so Leshka occurred to be the eldest in the team, a demob man. All my friends got together there for it was Pete’s father who passed away. I had considered him for Pete’s grandpa, I mean Serke-moochi, and he was a real greybeard. I never met such an old-looking father, you know.

So we were digging by a graveyard edge in order to carry the deceased a short way. When the campfire burnt down we scraped away the live coals to warm ourselves up on the go. And then my mates got to play cards round the live coals at once. It stunned me then: there was a cemetery all about with graves and crosses! Cards were promptly dealt round and at that moment I saw him, the God, you know. I looked up and there He was, white-haired, with a beard up to the waist. I couldn’t make out much; but he was alike Serke-moochi. And afterwards the sun emerged first that day.

I failed to call out though the guys wouldn’t listen to me: I had just left my school, and they all were demob men: Mishka, though he wasn’t present there and Leshka for sure, all but Pete, though his father happened to be such an old man. Surely it was wrong to play cards at a cemetery though we didn’t just amuse ourselves. We played cards to establish priorities, to find out who was to start up digging and to jump down a grave first.

***

“Now, let his best friend have the floor”, said a master of ceremonies turning to me. It sounded as if it were not Peter’s burial but an inauguration of a monument. Still, no outstanding personality ever was born there to set up an obelisk; all were ordinary people, nothing to say about, and they all were buried under regular oak crosses. The only monument in town was put to those perished in WWII. They were buried somewhere far away, and the memorial was put up in the town.

Peter’s face was as if shadowed, but he looked quite sound, and his haircut was regular. His eyes were closed as if he were sleeping or just had fallen asleep. Still there was no life in his face, a shadow lay on it, and the day was dusky, no sun around. So I looked at Peter and had no words. I proved to be unready, never had a rehearsal of the kind to say the last words. Sorry Peter, I don’t remember what I said, not the right words I ought to. And I didn’t say the main thing: that he was a good friend, not I!

Then many his friends gathered around a grave. The master made room for me when called up to speak: folks who came along were cramped. All of them were familiar to me though I hadn’t seen them for a long time. It was not the exact place to shake hands, and it wasn’t the right moment: one was not supposed to do it at the burial in Russia.

I only greeted them by a nod as though we parted yesterday, that’s all. As if I left my town for half a day, took a morning bus and soon was back in the afternoon, and then already was missing the green lanes and the side streets with soft grass and faint shades along the fences at sunset. In fact it was ages since I last had visited my town.

… I never saw Peter asleep, only once when we had woken him up to take his record player, it was quite a thing. A school leaving party had closed already and under exposed heaven with the stars like birthmarks a question poised in midair: what’s next? And we made up our minds: a dancing party to Peter’s records! We hurried to Peter for music records along the pothole country road walking on air: dancing until the daybreak!

We simply made Peter awaken then and asked him for the stereo record player, but I didn’t catch Peter asleep: we were for music! And there was no music at his funeral, it all happened ordinary and dismal. He wasn’t a distinguished one, just Peter; he was so plain that didn’t distinguish bad things, no black! More than that, he confused black and white when speaking local dialect. He uttered, “blackawhite” meaning “this and that”, such was my playfellow Peter.

Though the sun didn’t reveal itself that day, the sky was getting clear as it happens in a March afternoon… Only on Peter’s face there lay a shadow, not quite a shadow, just a tinge of a stiff idea as though he was about to utter a word, or two. You know such a look when one is going to open his mouth, such an intense expression but no words.

“So, now his best friend is called upon to speak…” And I was unable to put the words right.

***

From my town to a burial ground one can go by two ways: the first is supposed to walk by and the other… They bring the departed this way, by the road where one can drive a hearse along. And a path with the steep slope is supposed to go by foot, old men wouldn’t take it. In general, the old folks rarely went to the cemetery. I saw little of them there, they didn’t like the place.

I made my way to the burial ground by the path; it ran from the town’s upper end down to a brook. The pathway was sloping steeply, and one could get to the cemetery in five minutes, or it could last ten minutes most in the dark. As kids, we had run this way down to the brook many a time. To get to the burial ground I had to climb a hill to the left, it was upside there.

The cemetery didn’t quite belong to my town; we shared it with a neighboring village, they buried there too. On the contrary, the burial ground could be initially theirs, nobody knows. Half the names of the buried were right the same, maybe relatives from my town and the village nearby. They all were my fellow-countrymen in any case.

So, I was going to see my friends at the cemetery. I keep an old picture with all the guys from my street, side by side on it. Lately we used to meet more often at the cemetery while burying an old man as a rule. We interred them with no fuss in an ordinary way: my mates leaped down a grave with their spades one after another to dig there.

We were used to go bury-digging with an own spade. One was not to pass it from hand to hand, it’s not a baton. If one had to pass the spade, he would lay it down, never drive it into the ground, and so let the other to pick it up. That’s it! Otherwise, folks would die one after another dragged off by a diseased. It couldn’t be denied, all the guys knew that! So while two of us were digging a grave, the others waited around smoking.

That night three of my friends could have been waiting for me at the burial ground. In the dark no strangers attended it, and my mates were local residents. Gosh, it was a moonlit night, and the moon looked like an armful of last year’s straw. A deadly light was casting by the moon from far above. The fellows would wait there having a respite as if sitting in the shade of a hayrick in summer.

Alex would be sitting there with his back upright as if he were a Guard officer. I don’t know what position he held in the Army, but I know he served his time. Then a boy I hadn’t been present at his send-off where the old folks gathered together. When I grew up, he was already back and we went around with him, a jolly crowd from the same street.

And Mike would be lying nearby with his elbows resting against the ground. He wouldn’t be comfortable but stand it: I had called him single-minded. He’d lie facing Alex, not quite looking him in the face. They walked in line in life, worked at the same weaving mill where so many girls around. Why had they disagreed once? Mike moved out soon after and sold his parent’s house. The fact grieved him so much that he never appeared in the street again. So Mike stretched himself out there, and Alex would be sitting opposite with his leg bent under him.

And Pete would be standing beside them as if ready to run somewhere. Where could he hurry at night, I wonder? Pete was ever ready to come to the aid: to dig potatoes or to chop firewood, or even to dig a grave if needed. Pete was ever good-natured and reliable. He didn’t agree with quarrels, that’s why he was standing there between Alex and Mike, just to make sure.

But the two guys wouldn’t fall out. All the three of them were dead right a few years. They died one after another; maybe one had driven a spade into the ground, who were I to ask then?

A lonely crow would fly away from a crooked tree at the graveyard; it has nobody to fly to.

Valery Petrovsky

Valery is a freelance writer from Russia. He is a Chuvash University, Cheboksary graduate in English, graduated VKSch Higher School, Moscow in journalism, and got a degree in psychology at Kazan State Technological University. His prose has been published in The Legendary, Danse Macabre, and The Other Room among others. He placed a few pieces of fiction in Australian journals Going Down Swinging, The Fringe Magazine and The Skive. Valery lives in Russia at a remote village by the Volga River.

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