Death can arrive at any moment and for one anonymous woman it came when she’d been gestating a fetus for six months. Her shrouded body ended up tossed into a mass grave in a random cemetery. As a compassionate priest devoted a few words to her out of the goodness of his heart, the gravedigger covered her body with dirt. No one claimed or identified the cadaver, and the few folks who noticed her obvious pregnancy assumed that the baby had died along with its mother.
However that wasn’t the case. The fetus continued to nourish itself on her inert body and, just as blackness was about to envelop its incipient existence, the only power able to change its inevitable fate intervened. Death. Death itself, whose job was to carry off designated souls without a second thought, fixed her eye on that small creature.
Death had been tempted by the idea of being a mother for centuries. She figured it would pass and, in any case, she never expected to ever feel anything for anyone dwelling on the side of the living. But she was drawn to the fetus by the beating of its little heart and, when she headed over and ran a hand over its ribs to take its life, she hesitated. Her skinny, cold fingers moved around the tiny heart without actually touching it. Even the slightest brush would have silenced it. There was no reason for her not to do it. That life wasn’t meant to continue. But when the desire is strong enough, you find the justification you need, and Death found hers. If the fetus finished its gestation, its beating heart wouldn’t be accompanied by any other beating heart. Only by silence and the rustling of insects picking bones clean. The baby would be born surrounded by dead tissue. It would be her child, Death’s child, and Death, excited by the prospect, withdrew her hand from inside it and decided that that mass grave would not be its tomb.
Rats, spiders, and lizards all immediately began to distrust that part of the cemetery. The birds avoided flying over it, and if any unsuspecting animal entered the radius of the grave, by land or by air, it would be struck down. The fruits on nearby trees fell when they were at their juiciest and, no matter what slope separated them from the mass grave, they rolled over to it. That was how Death, making use of the life in her reach, managed to feed the fetus, converting the earth, which absorbed the essence of the bodies decomposing in it, into a womb.
After seven months and three weeks of gestation, the baby was moving about restlessly. A tramp, who’d just decided to confess his love to the young lady who begged for alms near the river, dropped dead at the cemetery gate. In other circumstances the body would have lain out on the ground for hours or days but, inexplicably, it began to decompose so rapidly that the smell alerted respectable passersby, and the respectable passersby alerted the police, and the police alerted the gravedigger, who urgently carted the tramp’s body inside the cemetery walls and began digging.
Death was expectant. It was the moment of birth. She, the sole one responsible for bringing souls from one side to the other, was so engrossed in that moment that she ignored everything else. Four streets away, in the courtyard of the tribunal, a woman with a noose already around her neck shouted for the last time to the crowd gathered that she wasn’t guilty of the crime of passion she’d been condemned for. Beneath his hood, the executioner, more worried about remembering the lines of his role in an amateur play than in that unfulfilling job, adjusted the noose and opened up the trapdoor beneath the woman. The doomed woman’s body fell of its own weight. Her cervical vertebrae let out a crack that elicited an ugh from the public. Seconds later, her toes dangling a few feet off the ground, the executed woman opened her eyes and looked up. She was curious to see what the other side was like but, to her disappointment, she saw the same faces. The crowd moved back. The ugh turned into surprise. Some excited voices attributed the miracle to divine justice and proclaimed her innocence. The most contorted face in the crowd belonged to a woman who, amid shouts demanding the real guilty party be found, slipped out of the courtyard.
At the cemetery, the gravedigger was preparing the hole. Suddenly, he noticed that the dirt was oddly spongy and instinctively began to dig more carefully. As he stood inside the pit, he pulled back his elbows to scoop out the last shovelful but, before the metal struck the earth, a tiny hand made its way through the remains of the bones. Unable to take in what he was seeing, the gravedigger dropped the shovel and dug his hands into the dirt. He soon touched a tender body and, to his astonishment, as if harvesting an onion, he pulled a baby out of the bowels of the grave. A thick root intertwined with the remains of human tissue emerged from its belly button and extended its lateral branches throughout the entire mass grave. The gravedigger broke the root to separate the baby from the earth. He held it in his hands with his arms extended, staring at it in amazement. The newborn burped out a handful of dirt, took in a gulp of air and started to cry.
Death was overjoyed. In the tribunal’s courtyard they were raising up the executed woman’s body one more time. A civil servant ordered the executioner to push her into the trapdoor again hard, once she was hoisted, before the swarming crowd was upon them. The executed woman didn’t know where she was. She couldn’t manage to straighten her neck. The executioner heaved her up as she swayed and insisted on her innocence, but Death returned her attentions to the world and the executed woman, once she was up on the gallows again, collapsed at the feet of the executioner with an expression suggesting she’d died from hanging a few minutes earlier, and the crowd dispersed.
No other human had witnessed the scene at the cemetery. The gravedigger pulled the child out of the grave and, after climbing out himself, buried the tramp. He wrapped the baby in his jacket and took him home making sure no one saw him. He lived alone in a little house inside the cemetery’s walls. He closed the door and placed the baby on the table. It was all so fantastical that he had to check the palm of his hand twice to make sure the scratch left by the root he’d torn from the baby’s belly was actually there. Mr. Soiler, the man who had been the gravedigger before him at that cemetery and whose assistant he’d been—it was Mr. Soiler’s death that had made his job and house available—had once told him about a case that he now recalled as he stood beside the baby.
The day before Mr. Sprout’s burial, his widow came to Mr. Soiler with a very strange request: the following day, when all the mourners had returned to their own matters, Mr. Soiler was to dig up her husband’s corpse, rebury it without clothes or a coffin and cover it only with a few inches of dirt. So that Mr. Soiler could fulfill the assignment to her satisfaction, the young widow explained the reasons behind her unsettling request.
Each fall, Mrs. Sprout, when she was still Miss Brisel, would plant a tulip bulb in the garden at her house to watch it flower when spring arrived. One year, when the warm-weather flowers were already long gone and the trees were already bare, the tulip still hadn’t flowered. Its leaves hadn’t even peeked out from underground. Any other person would have thought that the bulb was dead, but Miss Brisel was certain that it was still alive underground. No matter what the weather, she would slip out into the garden when her parents weren’t looking—they wouldn’t have understood her weird obsession—to talk to the bulb. But nothing emerged from the ground where she’d planted it. Autumn came to a close, and winter, and when the new spring arrived, Miss Brisel waited. Every day, without exception, she knelt down in front of that patch of barren ground and spoke to it. A very hot summer was followed by a new autumn and winter, and as March was ending, a young man showed up at the front door, wrapped in a shawl that Miss Brisel had left on a chair in the garden. Mr. and Mrs. Brisel decided to take in the stranger until he regained the memories he seemed to have lost, but in the end he never did recover them. He didn’t speak either, and Doctor Lent, after an exhaustive examination, concluded that he was mute. But Miss Brisel had a suspicion that was confirmed when, eavesdropping behind a door, she overheard how shocked one of the maids was by the amount of dirt that had come from the stranger’s feet while they were making him presentable for the masters of the house. The name Mister Sprout was her idea. She lied to her parents when she told them that the boy, in a moment of clarity, had written it on a slip of paper. Even though Mr. Brisel never really entirely trusted a young man who preferred water to wine, he didn’t stand in the way of him marrying his daughter.
“We’ve been very happy together,” said the young widow to Mr. Soiler, who thought the woman wasn’t all there. “But no bulb lives for that long,” she added sadly. “Just in case, follow my instructions.”
The baby was still laying on the table, in silence. The room had filled with a peace that was very different from the one the gravedigger had grown accustomed to living alone in the cemetery. No one would believe him. He would hand the baby over to the police and say that someone had abandoned it on his doorstep. Standing over the baby, he stretched out a hand. He touched him and his eyes filled with tears. There were many reasons for that man to be moved to tears before a new, unblemished life. He wouldn’t hand him over to the police. He knew firsthand the erratic future awaiting orphans, and when he held the boy for the first time in his hands he had felt himself part of the place we all belong to.
That night, as the gravedigger and the boy slept, Death tiptoed over to the small box the man had set up as a bed for the baby. The living are usually distressed by Death’s presence, but the baby didn’t bat an eyelash. He breathed happily when he perceived her company, remembering how she had looked after him when he was below ground. Death too felt the tie that bound them. She wouldn’t let anything happen to her boy. But Death was an expert in snatching away life, not creating it, and she’d forgotten something when she’d taken the place of the dead mother’s womb, an essential element that Life meticulously and without exception wove into every living being, to cling to until their very final sigh. She forgot to give the boy hope.
No one is looking to add other people’s responsibilities to their own and, when those around the gravedigger found out that the reserved man was taking care of a baby, they didn’t ask questions. The police in the region figured that one of the prostitutes who worked around there had palmed it off on him; the prostitutes figured that Mrs. Stain, whose business was taking care of dirty deeds, had palmed it off on him; Mrs. Stain figured that Mr. Crumb, who was always drunk and winning and losing the most improbable things at cards, had palmed it off on him; and Mr. Crumb, who frequently slept off his hangovers in the cemetery and whom the gravedigger occasionally took in if the weather was bad, never even realized that there was a child in the house, and didn’t figure anything.
The cemetery was a very fun place. At just over a year old, little Woody was already running all over. There were too many bugs to chase, too many rows of tombs to discover. But he didn’t speak. Below ground he had gotten used to noting every slight movement that broke the silence. The rustling of worms, beetles digging tunnels, roots growing . . . and, once he was above ground, there were so many sights and sounds that he needed to digest all that information before saying a word. The gravedigger wasn’t concerned about the boy not speaking yet. When he saw him so attentive to everything that surrounded him he was reminded of little Cornie and his last words. Little Cornie was a very small boy who had been at the orphanage with the gravedigger. One morning, while they were all playing in the yard, little Cornie climbed a tree to see what there was beyond the walls that confined him. When he reached the very top he fell. Flat on the ground, he had no pulse. For a few minutes they thought that he had died, but little Cornie came to again. Before Mr. Fosk made an example of him with a punishment for his naughtiness, Mr. Taup, the head of the institution, theologian and fan of mysteries from beyond the grave, asked him what he had seen during those seconds when he was dead, but little Cornie didn’t say a word. Instead of making him stand outside with his arms extended until suppertime, Mr. Taup ordered the punishment to last until sunset because of his refusal to answer. That night, despite his exhaustion, little Cornie scaled the insurmountable walls of the orphanage, while everyone slept, and escaped. Before leaving, he woke up the boy who slept in the bed next to his and, with his coat on over his nightshirt and his shoes in his hands, he said: “You will reach the truth in silence.” “Others’ answers will distance you from what you knew,” he added before disappearing among the rows of beds. The gravedigger never knew what little Cornie had seen while Mr. Fosk was slapping his face to bring him to, nor did he ever convey his enigmatic words to anyone. When he was fourteen and Mr. Soiler hired him to empty and fill graves, that rainy autumn when the twenty members of the Bover family died of food poisoning, he imagined –with the eyes of a small child– little Cornie scaling that gigantic wall, and he stopped being afraid of the cemetery’s sinister atmosphere. It was evident that, whatever he had seen after falling from the tree, little Cornie didn’t fear death as much as he feared life. As for little Cornie’s words, now, as he watched Woody’s gaze marvel at the information received from the outside world without that seeming to contradict his inner world, he was beginning to understand them.
One evening, still not quite two years old, Woody was playing with some rocks in one corner of the cemetery. No sounds came from that corner. Only rocks hitting against each other. No wind blew. The leaves on the trees were far away, as were the birds. The only thing around were the gravestones. A beetle carved out a path for itself below ground. Woody’s ear perfectly isolated that imperceptible rustle. He was recognizing his mother’s voice filtered through her womb over months. He dropped the rocks he was holding. The beetle emerged on the surface, spread out his wings and took flight. Woody got up and desperately extended his hand toward him, and it was Death –who was terribly excited—who was the only witness to Woody’s first word.
The days passed placidly in the cemetery. In spring there were more visits and the tombstones filled with flowers, in summer life came and went with the green that covered every fertile stretch of land, in autumn the light warmed the stones and in the winter, when it snowed, hundreds of solitary headstones peeked out in silence amid the white, turning the cemetery into a scene out of a storybook. But no matter the season, there were always burials. Once a week Woody accompanied his father to the market to shop. From his eyelevel, he observed the occupants of elegant carriages driven by chauffeurs who shouted to warn that they were coming through, and the occupants of more modest carriages, driven by chauffeurs who warned the same way; well-dressed men and alms-seekers, women who paraded stiffly and prostitutes, children who ran through the streets without anyone worrying after them and those who walked bound to nannies; he watched the bean and pulse seller, the produce woman, the butcher… and he knew how their burials and their coffins would be. He was fascinated by that bustling world that wrote the texts of the tombstones where he had learned to read. He was unaware that he belonged to that world until, on one of those trips to the market, the baker’s wife asked the gravedigger a question: “How old is your boy?”
“Four,” answered the gravedigger.
Woody had learned to count and knew how old he was but, until that moment, he hadn’t asked himself what years were. When he didn’t understand a word inscribed on a tomb he would ask his father. The gravedigger was proud that his boy could already read. He had learned at the orphanage. Passing on that knowledge acquired over sad years was a way to turn some of the hardships of the past on their head.
“What does that mean?” Woody had asked him one day, pointing to the dates that followed the names on each of the tombstones.
“Those are years,” his father had replied, “The year they were born and the year they died.”
That morning, at the market, the baker’s wife spoke to the gravedigger of a child just a few weeks old.
“He died in my arms,” said the woman, lowering her gaze toward her elbow as her mind traveled back in time just long enough to remember it. “But that was years ago.”
Woody understood that the years distanced themselves quickly and, at the same time, remained nearby, because he could almost see that baby in the baker’s wife’s eyes, despite the time that had passed.
After returning from the market, the boy and his father lunched together as they did every day in their little house in the cemetery. The gravedigger ate his dish of cabbage and potatoes in the blink of an eye. He had work to do. The boy followed him around all afternoon asking questions about the dates on the headstones and, while the gravedigger was oblivious to the goal of that interest, Woody learned to subtract.
From then on, Woody began to comb the cemetery counting how many years those people who were now gone had lived, and when he went to the market he stared at the men, women and children, and tried to deduce how old they each were. He paid attention to the conversations of folks worrying over the price of fish, and whether the clouds threatened rain… and then he imagined them with those eyes that could no longer see, the eyes of the dead. It never occurred to any of them that a four-year-old boy was observing their day-to-day lives. What did those people do during the time they had to live? What did they think about? Over time Woody began to have insomnia. He closed his eyes and the scenes he’d watched over the course of the day came back to him. Everyday scenes with no links between them that nevertheless unsettled him, and he couldn’t understand why. Young Miss Kelcun waited tensely for the butcher to prepare her order, while he made uncomfortable jokes that splattered bits of saliva on her cut of meat; Mr. Date, a man with atrophied muscles who bought walnuts because he’d been told that eating them everyday would lengthen his life; the daughters of the produce woman, two girls with curly hair and yellowed skin who sat among the boxes of endives and remained undaunted as the insects used them as a bridge to jump from box to box; the son of the sweets vendor, a boy with a distracted gaze who was always covered in bruises and no one ever saw playing… In the middle of the night Woody opened his eyes and saw the baker’s wife rocking a baby while asking after his age. And then through his mind paraded the tombstones, and the years, and the men, and the children, and the women who looked at the girls, and the littler girls who looked at them too, and the prostitutes who looked at the little girls… And, finally, he heard his father saying that he —Woody—was still four years old.
At night Death extended her hand toward the boy. Each time she noted with pleasure that her son hugged her a little tighter. But Woody’s tender age and her need for that contact made her forget—until the day Mrs. Lead was buried—that she had felt that kind of embrace before.
Mrs. Lead’s greatest fear was being buried alive. She had left written instructions that, before her body was taken from the world of the living, they tie a string to her wrist and attach it to a little bell above ground. Her maid of the last sixty years, Miss Rides, was to spend three days beside her tomb listening for the bell. The same little bell Mrs. Lead had incessantly used to call Miss Rides over all those many years of service. After hours sitting in a chair beside the tomb, exhausted by her advanced age and the commotion her lady’s death had meant in the house where she’d served since the age of twelve, Miss Rides closed her eyes and fell asleep. She awoke in a state, unsure if the bell ringing she’d heard was a nightmare or reality. She got up from the chair and went to find the gravedigger. Woody was amusing himself by scooping out a hole. The gravedigger passed right by him, with Miss Rides, who followed behind apprehensively. Once they arrived at the tomb, Miss Rides was unable to sit down. She was anxious to have the coffin opened. When the spade finally hit the coffin, Miss Rides’s breathing stopped short. Then, after a new gasp of air, it resumed at an accelerated pace. The gravedigger opened the lid. Mrs. Lead had the expected gray, rigid appearance. The gravedigger turned his head to get consent to close up the box again, but there was someone else beside the maid. It was Woody. The little old servant dropped into the chair and her breathing slowed again. The gravedigger buried up the coffin again, confused as to why Woody wasn’t curious about Mrs. Lead and yet didn’t take his eyes off of Miss Rides.
It was well into the night and the gravedigger was sleeping. Woody was lying in bed looking at the ceiling. The brightness and shadows shifted depending on the time of day and the season but the ceiling was always the same. A tear rolled down his cheek but Woody’s expression didn’t change. Death pulled back her arm gradually and, from that moment on, she began to feel uneasy when the boy embraced her.
Despite the evidence, and following Mrs. Lead’s directions, Miss Rides remained seated beside the tomb that night and the next two days. On the third day she picked up the chair and left the cemetery.
Time passed. The produce woman’s daughters grew lush amid the vegetables, Mr. Date died, young Miss Kelcun married and the butcher joked with Mrs. Unamore’s new maid, the son of the sweets vendor continued to be covered in bruises and would smile when the fishmonger told him stories about fishermen, like the one about the girl who lived among the whales, and the baker’s wife kept asking everyone how old their children were as she sliced and wrapped their bread.
The gravedigger had known many sad children, but there was something different in Woody’s sadness. At just five years old, Woody had dark circles beneath his eyes and a weary appearance. When the gravedigger looked into the boy’s eyes he thought he saw himself reflected in his pupils, unprotected by that invisible force that pushes us from one day to the next. He thought he could see himself at two years old atop the cart that had brought him to the orphanage, his hands empty, his fingers clinging to the buttons of his own jacket, and at sixteen, looking up at the stars from the cemetery, his arms around a prostitute, telling her about the plans he was making for his life as she laughed, while inside the little house Mr. Soiler had a beer with Mr. Crumb, when Mr. Crumb still had a wife and son and hadn’t lost his way in life. Woody was a mirror in which it was best to see yourself reflected indirectly. His gaze revealed his incomprehension of what it meant to be allocated a life. And to keep on. And to get your hopes up, whether founded or unfounded. And to keep on. The gravedigger began to suffer from insomnia. He couldn’t explain his fears to anyone because he couldn’t confess where his son had come from. He didn’t dare speak to the boy either. He would ask him questions he didn’t know how to answer. Time and time again the image of the tiny hand making its way up through the earth would appear to him. Why had he found the boy? Who had created that poor creature who didn’t seem to have the strength to live? Woody spoke with the tombs as he played. Children talk to the things around them, in order to explain to themselves what they’ve understood of the world around them, up to that point. One morning like so many others, the gravedigger heard him and hid behind the funerary monument where Woody was playing. It was a baby’s grave. The gravedigger pricked up his ears. Perhaps the boy would reveal, in his games, what was eating away at him. But Woody spoke in too soft a voice. The gravedigger looked up. He was a simple man. He had learned years ago not to ask for too much from life. When Woody started to continue his path through the tombstones, he came upon the gravedigger.
“What are you doing here?” asked Woody, but the gravedigger didn’t know how to answer.
Woody didn’t give it much importance.
“Papa, there are children who don’t live to be grown-ups,” he said, as if he took comfort in that reality.
The gravedigger gave him a half-smile and then hugged him tightly against his body so the boy wouldn’t see his devastated reaction to those words.
In most stories, childhood is just the beginning, but the gravedigger’s son never reached adulthood. He was seven years old when, one morning, while his father was still sleeping, he left the little house in the cemetery. He walked barefoot among the tombs. He passed Mr. Boncor’s headstone, the only one not under a tree that was nonetheless covered in bird droppings. Mr. Boncor had died while feeding his homing pigeons, and the animals, who felt great love for that sour-faced man that everyone despised, often flew around his grave. He passed the gravestone of Mrs. Gosset who, while trying to convince her husband of the benefits of avoiding red meat, choked on a chicken bone. And he passed the grave of the Spenta brothers, who burned to death as the result of a violent argument and had to be buried in the same coffin since no one could tell which part of the intertwined bodies belonged to which man. He didn’t stop in front of his favorite monument, from which—although it was on a baby’s grave— a girl sculpted in stone took flight. Death followed him, reluctantly. Woody had her by the hand. She knew where they were headed. The boy never found out where he had come from, but he intuitively went in search of the spongiest soil, the patch of earth he’d seen turned over the most times, there where there were no headstones or coffins, the part of the cemetery that was furthest from the strolling paths, furthest from the market. The mass grave. He lay down there, closed his eyes and hugged Death with all his might. If she shouted, no one in the world of the living was able to hear her. The gravedigger searched for Woody throughout the entire cemetery. When he arrived, Death could still feel the touch of Woody’s heart on her fingertips.
Many years passed before Death saw the gravedigger again. It was one spring morning. The gravedigger told the boy who’d been helping him in the cemetery for the last three years that he was feeling tired. He went to lie down for a little while. On his way to the little house he stopped. Something had caught his eye. He looked between the graves, squinted, and smiled. Then he continued walking. He went into the little house, took off his boots and stretched out on the bed. Death waited a moment before carrying him off. That room held many memories for her. As she was about to leave the cemetery, Death stopped at the same spot where the gravedigger had. What was it that had made him smile? She looked between the graves but saw nothing.
The gravedigger’s young assistant didn’t find his body right away. He was busy removing withered bouquets and pulling weeds. That spring morning he headed over to the little house to consult with the gravedigger. He’d found something unexpected and wasn’t sure what to do with it. A tulip growing straight up out of the earth.
Translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem
Teresa Colom (La Seu d’Urgell, 1973) is an Andorran poet and writer. She has published six poetry collections. Her debut work of fiction, entitled “Ms Keaton and other beasts”, and from which this text has been extracted, won the Premi Maria Àngels Anglada. (Past winners of this prize include Quim Monzó, Carme Riera and Sergi Pàmies).
Mara Faye Lethem has translated novels by Jaume Cabré, David Trueba, Albert Sánchez Piñol, Javier Calvo, Patricio Pron, Marc Pastor and Toni Sala, among others. These books have been featured as New York Times and Booklist Editors’ Picks, and among the Best Books of the Year in The Times and Readers’ Favourite Books in the Financial Times. Her translation of The Whispering City, by Sara Moliner, recently received an English PEN Award.
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